Lawmakers close more of government to public

Monday, June 11, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The state has laws making most government records and meetings open to the public, ensuring taxpayers -- and the media that inform them -- have access to data about how their officials are conducting business.

But every year, legislators consider laws to scale back what information is available, and several notable restrictions on public information passed this year. Most await final approval by Gov. Matt Blunt.

Execution workers

A measure that has generated some attention would make secret the identities of those who carry out executions in Missouri and allow for lawsuits against the media or others who disclose that information.

Supporters say it's needed to ensure employees carrying out their jobs don't face danger from families of those executed looking for revenge.

Opponents say it further shrouds in secrecy a process the public has a right to know about and question. They especially take issue with language preventing the information from being subpoenaed in court. Last year, a legal challenge of Missouri's lethal injection method resulted in revelations that the physician in charge -- surgeon Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City -- sometimes reduced the amount of sedative given to condemned inmates.

Missouri executions were placed on hold after a federal judge required the state to use a doctor with expertise in anesthesia. A federal appeals court panel reversed the judge last week, but further appeals are expected.

Some of the 37 other states with the death penalty also shield the identities of their executioners. But if the measure becomes law, Missouri may be the only state to attach a specific penalty to revealing the names, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Assault victims

Another bill makes secret the identities of victims of sexual or domestic assault, stalking or forcible rape in otherwise public court records, as part of a broader bill that increases protections and services for victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence.

Supporters say closing that information in court documents eliminates one avenue abusers have to track down their victims, and lawmakers voiced little concern about that exception to the open-records law.

"There's a good argument for the moral case," said Sandy Davidson, a University of Missouri-Columbia law and journalism associate professor. "But we do have a First Amendment, and we do have an open court system. Repeatedly the Supreme Court has talked about the importance of having an open court system so we can be assured of fairness of trials."

Lawmakers' track record of placing more clouds into a law nicknamed for flooding government operations with sunshine has open government supporters worried.

"We took some hits this year, and consequently the public took some hits," said Doug Crews, director of the Missouri Press Association.

University donors

The University of Missouri also succeeded in closing financial information of university donors. The university said it's just trying to prevent having to release details like tax returns or estate plans sought from big-time backers, an issue private colleges don't face.

Other successful bills would help establish special committees for pharmacists and nurses struggling with drug abuse or other problems, including mental illness, to get treatment. That information also would be closed to public scrutiny.

Still, Crews also measured the overall outcome of the legislative session by what proposals to further close government information ultimately failed.

For example, he points to a failed effort to require people seeking information in property tax records to get permission from county collectors.

Opening doors

A few provisions making government more open to the public and the press did prevail.

A sweeping bill changing laws on mental health treatment requires final reports of substantiated abuse and neglect against mental health patients in state-run or private contractor centers to be public records. Previously, only the victim or their guardian were entitled to such reports.

But the names of the victim and employees involved still would be confidential. Information on claims that proved false also still would be released only to the family involved.

Also, to assuage some critics' concerns about secret executioners, that bill makes public part of the protocol Missouri follows in executing criminals, such as the types, amounts and timing of drugs used.

But by and large, it's getting a little harder for people to research and determine if their government is acting as it should.

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