JEFFERSON CITY – House members approved changes in the state Sunshine Law that would make communications between public officials at all levels of government and their constituents largely immune to records requests.
The changes, amended to a bill that extends lobbying restrictions to local government, now move to the Senate.
“The sole reason for this, and the sole intent of this, was to protect our constituents’ confidentiality and let them decide if that’s going to be leaked out the to media or not,” Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said.
Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, had proposed an amendment to Schroer’s proposal that would gut it except for restrictions on requesting Social Security numbers and other personal information. Carpenter’s amendment failed on a vote that went largely along party lines.
The changes would exempt “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information” and exempt any document or record “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
“Having open and public records is vital to transparency in government, and I’ll continue to advocate for it,” Carpenter said.
Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, said the amendment would protect constituents and return the General Assembly to the status quo. He said prior to the Clean Missouri amendment passing, people could not issue sunshine requests for communication from state legislators’ offices. That’s true, but Schroer’s amendment classifies communication between constituents and public officials at all levels, not just the state.
Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, also believes the amendment will help constituents.
“I just want to be sure that my constituents feel comfortable in contacting me and that I can keep their information private,” Toalson Reisch said.
The Missouri Press Association has issues with the amendment.
“This has never been a concern, until suddenly the legislators, individually, found that they were going to be covered by this same law that has applied to everyone for years,” Attorney for the Missouri Press Association Jean Maneke said.
Schroer’s amendment “closes even more than just correspondence. It closes addresses of legislators — how are you going to know, when you vote, if you’re voting for someone who lives in the district if their home address is a closed record, if it’s not public information. Some of these cell phones are paid for by state dollars, and so I certainly hope this isn’t going to mean that that information becomes a closed record.”
Lawmakers pointed to a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as an example of why they say this amendment is necessary. In that story, the reporter requested emails from the office of Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, and printed the names of constituents and the contents of their emails.
“That scares me,” Schroer said. “We need to do something to protect that avenue of communication.”
Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, also added an amendment to HB 445 that prevents public officials from using messaging apps like Confide, which deletes messages after they are read. Schroer said he worked with Mitten to write that amendment in order to prevent his amendment from being abused.
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