Getting public records shouldn’t be expensive

    Should Missouri taxpayers have to pay exorbitant fees to get copies of records that are open to the public? Governor Mike Parson thinks so.


    According to several published reports, amending Missouri’s open records law to permit government agencies to charge more for any records they turn over to the public is among Gov. Parson’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session. Among the changes, which were outlined in a presentation to Parson’s cabinet that was obtained by The Independent (www.missouriindependent.com) through an open records request, is a proposal to allow government agencies to charge fees for the time attorneys spend reviewing records requested by the public.
    The proposed change would reverse a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling against Parson’s office that found attorney review time was not “research time” under the current Sunshine Law and thus could not be charged. According to the governor’s presentation, this and other Sunshine Law changes being proposed were dubbed “Good Government” reforms and described the changes as ones that would “benefit political subdivisions, the legislature and state government.”
    Shouldn’t “Good Government” benefit the taxpayers, rather than political subdivisions, the legislature and state government?
    Who is screaming to make access to records that are owned by the public more expensive for the public access and obtain? It certainly isn’t the public!
    And that is certainly not lost on at least some people.
    “If they succeed in accomplishing this wish list of changes, it will make it incredibly difficult and expensive for Missourians to get access to information about what their government is doing,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.
    While other Sunshine Law changes are being considered, the one that should alarm taxpayers the most is a provision that allows a government agency to charge a member of the public the hourly rate of the lowest paid attorney used to conduct research or review requested records. Time attorneys spend reviewing records has been a common charge that often results in massive costs to obtain the records.
    Last June, however, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Sunshine Law does not authorize these types of fees. The ruling was made in a case alleging Parson’s office improperly redacted records, charged exorbitant fees and knowingly and purposely violated the state’s open records law. Since the ruling, the governor’s office has refunded attorneys’ fees paid by those whose requests were pending when the court’s decision was handed down.
    That case was originally filed by Elad Gross, a lawyer and former Democratic candidate for attorney general, who argued charging fees for attorney review time was illegal and said the state’s highest court affirmed that was the case.
    “And now that governments have less ways of really scaring and deterring regular folks from accessing our own records, they’re trying to make that the law in this state,” Gross said. “And I think it’s wrong.”
    Roland said allowing for such charges would be “catastrophic” to citizens’ efforts to obtain public records, and said if state statute is amended to allow for attorney review time to be charged, there wouldn’t be recourse through the courts like in Gross’ case.
    Missouri taxpayers already pay to maintain our public records and for the salaries of those who are charged with reviewing and releasing those records when people request them. Charging people again extremely high fees to access records they are entitled to by law is an insult and it benefits only government agencies and not the public.
    This proposed change to the Sunshine Law should wind up where it will do taxpayer the most use—in the trash.