Missouri lawmakers exempt themselves from records law

Monday, January 26, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- They require others to comply with open-government laws. But Missouri legislators have exempted themselves from having to turn over documents they prefer to keep secret.

The Missouri House and Senate have interpreted the Sunshine Law not to apply to individual lawmakers -- even though it does apply to the legislature as a whole, legislative committees and legislative staff.

Whether that complies with the spirit of the Sunshine Law is questionable. Whether that is the correct interpretation of the law also is a matter of some dispute.

Missouri's open-records-and-meetings law applies to any "public governmental body." Included in that definition are legislative entities created by the Constitution, state statutes or ordinances of political subdivision such as cities and school districts.

The General Assembly is a legislative body created by the constitution. But the 197 lawmakers comprising the legislature are not each "public governmental bodies" themselves, according the interpretation followed by the lawmakers.

House general counsel Don Lograsso -- a former lawmaker himself -- points to a July 2003 court decision involving the St. Louis school board. A state appeals court panel said the school board president as an individual was not a "public governmental body" and thus was not individually subject to the Sunshine Law.

House Budget Committee chairman Allen Icet followed that same logic when he recently declined to provide documents sought by The Associated Press.

Many states do not apply their public-records laws to legislators, said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But "to me, it is the height of hypocrisy to have the entire state government bureaucracy and local governments all the way down to city councils subject to a law that you absolutely, topically exempt yourself from," Davis said.

Some lawmakers have sought a more definitive answer on the legality of closing their records.

Last year, then-senator John Loudon, R-Chesterfield, asked Attorney General Jay Nixon for an official opinion on whether correspondence between lawmakers and governmental agencies -- saved in an individual lawmaker's office -- is considered a public record under the Sunshine Law. The question languished for months, but Nixon never answered it before becoming governor Jan. 12.

"There's not a clear answer to that question," said Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law cases. "No court has ever addressed it."

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