Missouri’s Sunshine Law is seen as a cornerstone of government transparency. What is driving the push to restrict what the public can see? (File photo)

Lori Curry didn’t set out to become an advocate for transparent government when she started using Missouri’s Sunshine Law to request records about a loved one who was incarcerated in a state prison. 

But now, in her work as executive director of Missouri Prison Reform, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on Missouri prisons, she depends on records from the state Department of Corrections to advocate for incarcerated people and their loved ones. And getting information on things such as prison conditions, overdose incidents or certain corrections policies requires persistence, time and, often, money. 

Last summer, Curry paid more than $500 for records, but she said she didn’t receive any documents for about four months, until she and others made noise on social media. 

“It’s really eye opening,” Curry said. “Ultimately, without records we cannot adequately advocate for people inside to know what’s going on.” 

Missouri’s Sunshine Law, described on the secretary of state’s website as “the embodiment of Missouri’s commitment to openness in government,” turns 50 this year. But advocates question whether state leaders really are committed to open access to information. They point to efforts underway that they worry will make essential records even harder to access. 

One such effort would close off records of state lawmakers that relate to “legislation or the legislative process,” with some exceptions. Critics say that bill, SB 174, and similar legislation could severely restrict access to government information.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, would close off legislative records — except those involving a public meeting or lobbyist — from access under the Sunshine Law.  Koenig said in a hearing that lawmakers “need to be able to think out loud with your staff and before you get a finished product,” the Missouri Independent reported

The bill would roll back a provision of the 2018 Clean Missouri ballot initiative, which incorporated legislative records into the definition of a public record.

Dave Roland, director of litigation at the Libertarian nonprofit Freedom Center of Missouri, said he believes lawmakers want to scale back those changes. 

“They are trying to reduce the degree of insight that citizens have about how decisions are being made and implemented,” Roland said. “And that can only have negative effects for government transparency and government accountability. There is nothing wrong with the Sunshine Law as it’s currently written. The problem is that certain people don’t like the implications of transparency.” 

Roland’s group often represents citizens in court when they cannot get Sunshine requests fulfilled, due to cost or slow response times. 

“I think what we have seen consistently over the last decade is many government entities trying to make it as expensive as possible for citizens to obtain records,” Roland said.

“On paper, the Sunshine Law is written very well. Ultimately, it comes down to the courts applying it the way it’s supposed to be applied. And that’s a factor that’s very difficult to account for.” 

Koenig has reduced the scope of his legislation since first introducing it, but his bill would allow agencies to charge rates for the time legal counsel spends redacting records. It was passed out of the Senate Committee on Governmental Accountability at the end of February. 

Elad Gross, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general, has led high-profile litigation efforts accusing the governor’s office of Sunshine Law violations. He said he thinks that parts of Koenig’s bill don’t even make sense.

“I don’t think that some of the provisions that have been written there are actually enforceable, or even sensical, given the requirements of Missouri Sunshine Law,” he said.  

The Missouri Supreme Court’s 2021 Sunshine Law ruling

In 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Mike Parson and his office had improperly redacted records, charged too much money for records and knowingly violated the Sunshine Law. 

The case was filed by Gross, who was looking into campaign finance and dark money across the state. In response to his records request, the governor’s office asked for over $3,600 to produce the nearly 14,000 documents. 

While the case was a landmark for open-information advocates in Missouri, plenty of governmental bodies across the state still do a poor job of keeping in line with Sunshine Law provisions, Gross said. 

“We have a mixed bag in Missouri when it comes to public access to public meetings and public records. Some government entities do a great job,” he said. “We have significant government entities and officials who do not want to follow the Sunshine Law. They believe that the Sunshine Law is something used to attack them, rather than to promote transparency in our government.” 

Gross said some private attorneys are stepping up to challenge state agencies and local governments when they violate the Sunshine Law, and some high-profile cases are raising awareness about the difficulty many Missourians run into when trying to obtain information they are legally entitled to. 

“I think each decision that we get does have ripple effects throughout the state,” he said. “I think we’re still not really seeing enforcement at the level that we should be seeing. But I think we are seeing some more activity, especially in some high-profile cases right now around the Sunshine Law.” 

Gross and other advocates don’t see access to this information as a political issue. Open information, they argue, should be a cornerstone of democracy no matter the political party that is in power. 

“There’s a lot of officials who have confused renting their offices with owning them, and I think we really need a lot more officials who understand they’re here at the pleasure of the people that they’re serving,” Gross said. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...