Sunshine Law facts and frequently asked questions

Sunday, July 27, 2008

According to the Missouri Sunshine Law Chapter 610.022, public records are considered open to inspection by citizens unless otherwise provided by law. The point is to allow citizens as much as access to taxpayer-funded institutions as possible. A government body may close records according to certain provisions, but Chapter 610.011 of the Sunshine Law encourages a liberal interpretation of what is to be considered public record.

What information may be closed?

* Legal actions or litigation

* Leasing purchasing or sale of real estate when public knowledge might adversely affect the price paid in the transaction

* The hiring, firing, disciplining or promotion of an employee

* The welfare cases of individuals

* Software codes for data processing

* Individually identifiable personnel records

* Records related to security systems

* Records protected by other laws, such as Social Security numbers, tax returns, adoption records, many juvenile records, mental health treatment records, sex offender information beyond what is available from the county registry and records about the qualification to carry a concealed weapon.

How do I make a request or to whom do I send a request?

Requests should be made to the person dubbed "custodian of records" for the public body. Often it is a clerk, but can also be a board member or the board's administrative assistant.

Can the government charge for requests?

The law allows governments to charge up to 10 cents per page for copies of standard-sized pages and more for larger documents or maps, photos or other images. (Many e-mails are considered public, particularly those sent to a majority of a governing body.) If information needs to be researched, other charges may apply but are limited to the average hourly pay for clerical staff. The law allows fees to be waived when noncommercial requests will benefit the public.

What about training?

The Missouri attorney general's office provides extensive Sunshine Law resources online, including a complaint form, and offers a free booklet to anyone and free annual training to elected officials. The Web site and booklet include advice on getting records. Last year, the state recorded 239 Sunshine Law inquiries, more than half from government officials looking for information on how to comply with the law.

Information regarding the Sunshine Law, including a summary of the law, the statutes themselves and answers to frequently asked questions can be found online at http://ago.mo.gov/sunshine law. The U.S. Department of Justice offers details on the federal Freedom of Information Act at www.usdoj.gov/oip.

-- Tristram Thomas and Peg McNichol

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