The Governor Who Thinks Examining HTML Is Criminal Hacking Is Now Working To Make Missouri's Public Records Laws Worse
from the thank-you-for-your-self-serving dept
Missouri Governor Mike Parson is perhaps best known these days for trying to convert a right-click menu option into criminal hacking with his relentless (and relentlessly uninformed) desire to turn the people who exposed a security flaw in the state’s Department of Education website into nefarious criminals.
Governor Parson seems to believe intimidation is better than accountability. Whatever can be used to deter normal people from exposing the shortcomings of better people (i.e., government employees) is fair game. For years, the state’s public records law have served this same purpose: increasing the distance between the state’s government and the lowly people who have the misfortune of living in this state.
In 2016, the state’s laws were used to justify something that looked a whole lot like extortion. Non-profit group Reclaim the Records asked the state for birth and death records dating back to 1910. To be sure, this was a big ask. But it wasn’t nearly as big as the state agency portrayed it. According to the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, compiling these records for release would involve more than 23,000 hours of labor at $42.50 an hour, resulting in a $1.5 million bill for services rendered.
This wasn’t acceptable to Reclaim the Records, which chose to hire a lawyer rather than issue a $1.5 million check to the Missouri government. Once the group lawyered up, the DHSS changed tack, informing Reclaim the Records it simply wouldn’t be releasing the data at all. It became apparent the agency was only interested in profiting from information it was required to collect and compile. Any third-party with enough money could buy this data from the DHSS. But public records requesters were being asked to pay full retail plus a sizable markup for information the agency was obligated to turn over to them.
A few years later, the transparency rating of the state and its “sunshine law” took another hit when the state’s attorney general arrived in court to argue the government had a First Amendment right to withhold records. The AG deliberately conflated rights afforded to residents (the protection that allows them to make complaints about government officials without fear of retaliation) with the state government’s nonexistent right to withhold records under the First Amendment.
With the state governor and his office undoubtedly facing hundreds of public records requests related to his inexplicable decision to treat responsible reporting of security flaws as criminal hacking, the governor’s office is backing (and directing) efforts that will make it more difficult for public records requesters to obtain documents and data from government agencies.
Amending Missouri’s open records law to permit government agencies to withhold more information from the public — and charge more for any records that are turned over — is among Gov. Mike Parson’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session.
The changes, which were outlined in a presentation to Parson’s cabinet that was obtained by The Independent through an open records request, include a proposal to allow government agencies to charge fees for the time attorneys spend reviewing records requested by the public.
Such a change would reverse a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling against Parson’s office that found attorney review time was not “research time” under the Sunshine Law and thus could not be charged.
Governor Parson wants to deter requests, which lends itself to the operation of a more-opaque government. Fees are a big part of the amendment. But it also increases the number of records state agencies can withhold. State Rep Bruce DeGroot is running interference for the governor, admitting in earlier statements that the governor directly approached him with suggestions on how to amend the law.
If the law passes, requests will become more expensive. They will also be less likely to be fulfilled.
DeGroot’s bill also redefines what is considered a meeting and makes it easier for agencies to destroy public records.
“It actually makes the Sunshine Law significantly more complex. It creates a lot more reasons that an attorney might find to treat records as closed,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that promotes government transparency. And that, in turn, could increase the number of hours government attorneys spend reviewing records, driving up the cost.
The governor and his supporters want to make public records a pay-to-play game. Adding fee increases to release restrictions shifts a lot of power back to the state government, diminishing the power of residents to inform themselves about their government’s activities or to attempt to hold them accountable for misdeeds by using their own words and actions against them. The state government has no reason to do this other than the obvious one: to insulate it from the limited power of the governed. But the government gets to make the rules and, without the presence of enough legislators that still feel obliged to serve the public, the government will probably get its way.