Locally and throughout the state
A recent Missouri Supreme Court decision defines just how far-reaching the popular proverb “the long arm of the law” can stretch by ruling governments may not charge fees for time spent sifting public records prior to release of the records.
The decision stems from the case in which attorney and Sunshine Law advocate Elad Jonathan Gross sued Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office for charging more than $3,600 for records pertaining to former Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration. The ensuing bill charged $40 per hour for more than 90 hours of time for such processing.
In response to the suit, the court fully defined the parameters of the law by stating that government bodies may not charge those requesting the documents, for time spent by attorneys reviewing the documents. The 6 to 0 decision by the state’s highest court supersedes an earlier decision by the Cole County Circuit Court.
In addition, the ruling clarified that Parson’s legal representation failed to provide an explanation for why some information was redacted.
The scenario not only describes the actions of those representing Parson’s office, but had repercussions in dozens of Sunshine cases, possibly including a suit filed by Jason Maki against the City of Parkville, alleging Sunshine violations.
That suit was settled recently when the City of Parkville agreed to pay Maki $195,000.
In that case, the city charged Maki more than $4,000 for documents he requested and stated much of the charges stemmed from the city administrator’s time sifting through the documents. Sunshine attorney Bernie Rhodes said that the ruling against the governor’s office is “a great victory for openness and transparency” and.”a wonderful decision” that is destined “to put teeth into the Sunshine Law.”
Rhodes said the ruling should stop a common response by those seeking government documents: withdrawing their requests. He called governments’ practices “artificial barriers and outrageous demands” and provides a way for officials to skirt the law, which is designed to provide the public access to records as a means of protecting democracy. He said governmental bodies at all levels have learned from each other which barriers to erect in blocking information, calling it an “increasing crackdown by governments and an increasing desire to keep government’s actions a secret.”
The ruling further reinforces a Missouri Court of Appeals decision that sorting and sifting by government officials indeed violates Missouri law. The law allows governmental bodies to charge for “staff time needed to make copies or transfer electronic records” when responding to requests for public records stored electronically.
The ruling will impact dozens of cases currently pending, said Rhodes of Lathrop GPM group in Kansas City, who has represented The Kansas City Star and The St. Louis Post Dispatch in numerous cases, including several that currently are pending.
Prior to the ruling, Rhodes filed a brief of “amici curiae,” a persuasive legal document meant to provide the court with additional information about the pending case and its effects. Rhodes described ongoing litigation he filed on behalf of the Star against Clay County as “the poster child of attorney review abuse.”
In that case, Star reporters requested bills the county had paid to “Sunshine Law counsel” and the county refused to provide the information unless they received $4,200 ($373.50 per hour) for time an attorney spent reviewing the bills.
In the Parkville lawsuit, which Maki filed in February of 2020, city officials submitted a charge of more than $6,222 to Maki for time a high-ranking official, City Administrator Joe Parente, spent reviewing requested documents. He has waited months for some public documents while Parente sifted and culled documents to remove information that would paint city leaders in an unfavorable light, Maki alleged in a court filing.
The practice of charging for documents by adding time spent culling them, and other similar practices meant to restrict public information, are a power play by officials and strikes at the heart of our country’s founding principles, Rhodes said.
“An informed citizenry can only be informed by knowing what the government is doing,” Rhodes said and added that the ruling and resulting requested information is “crucial to our exercising of democracy.”