On Feb. 7, the Missouri House voted in approval of a bill that included amendments that would curb some facets of the state’s Sunshine Law, a measure established following Watergate to assist members of the public with the ability to access information from public government officials.
Rep. Nick Schroer, [R-O’Fallon], proposed the amendment to create exceptions in the Sunshine Law’s language during the debate of House Bill 445, that pertained to the discussion of lobbyist gift bans. The House, which has a Republican majority, ultimately added Schroer’s amendment to the discussed bill on that voice vote on Feb. 4. The main bill was sponsored by Rep. Shamed Dogan [R-Ballwin].
The vote on the underlying legislation was 103 to 47.The amendment exempts records from the law that are “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” that possibly include “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
Schroer said the main goal of the changes was to keep information the pertained specifically to constituents private. Examples include items like political beliefs, addresses, Social Security numbers, and other forms of identifying information pertaining to constituents.
“The intent of this is to protect the confidentiality of our constituents and the private information of our constituents,” Schroer said in an interview with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine. “Nothing more, nothing less. If our constituents want the private information that they share with us to be leaked out into the media or to some third-party to use it, they’re free to do it.”
Dogan agreed with the intent of Schroer’s amendment and stated the purpose was, “to protect very sensitive, or personal information.” Specific examples included addressed and Social Security numbers, which according to Dogan, are subject to currently existing gaps in the Sunshine Law.
“I doubt people want their Social Security address published in the paper or on the internet somewhere,” Dogan told Mid Rivers Newsmagazine.
In addition, Schroer also sought to exempt “constituent case files,” which include “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information or assistance.”
“… if you send me your Social Security number because you’re trying to plan a White House tour with your family and they need to do a background check on you, or if you have a family member who is in dire need of substance abuse treatment, or if you have a situation where you or someone you know is in a domestic violence situation and you’re asking for a safe house,” Schroer said. “These are all things that myself and my colleagues have experienced, and if we don’t address this, all that private information is going to be leaked out by way of the Sunshine Law.”
Although the voice vote was affirmative and individual stances were not recorded, the proposed changes were not without opposition. Some feared that Schroer’s proposed language would tighten access to governmental information and requests on a local level, which he said is not the amendment’s intent.
“At a local level, I think you still need protection,” Schroer said. “Like, if a parent is going to a school board member or a superintendent with an issue that their child is being bullied or has substance abuse issues, or if there are concerns over somebody within their class, if there’s an active-shooter-sort-of mentality, I think that still needs to be privileged information that only the parents or the constituent is able to keep,” Schroer said. “Then, if they want to leak it out to the public, that’s on them.”
“All the other documents, the government meetings, the governmental communications, all that should be open,” Schroer elaborated.
The proposed changes come about three months after Amendment 1, also known as “Clean Missouri,” received voter approval during the November 2018 election, which specifically subjugated legislators to the Sunshine Law.
“Previous to Amendment 1 going into effect, legislators were largely exempt from the Sunshine Law,” Schroer said. “Once we were subject to the Sunshine Law, we had to double-check and see if any of these exceptions would apply so we could actually protect the confidentiality of and private communications of our constituents.”
Another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Gina Mitten [D-Richmond Heights], also was added to the legislation forbidding elected officials from utilizing or downloading software such as the Confide app used by former Gov. Eric Greitens that automatically deleted electronic messages.
The next step will be for the Senate to examine the changes approved by the House.
“I’ve asked many people for over a month now, into the month of February, to try and work with both parties on this to see what kind of language we can use,” Schroer said. “To me, the intent of the Sunshine Law is for open government. It’s not to attack the privacy of the citizens of the St. Louis area.”
Dogan said constituents on the House floor expressed concerns about the amendment’s application to “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
“That is something that will probably have to be tweaked by the Senate,” Dogan said. “There’s a balance … We want a final product that’s protective of that information but doesn’t undermine the Sunshine Law or a citizen’s ability to request governmental information.”
Schroer said he is “standing firm” on the legislation but is open to further discussion or modifying the language.
“Are there better ways to do it?” Schroer asked. “I don’t know. Nobody has brought any other language to me, but I’m definitely open to modifying this amendment or future amendments that will allow us to protect the citizens of Missouri.”
In addition to possible edits by the Senate, Gov. Mike Parson’s office released a statement saying their office is monitoring the legislation as it moved forward. Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, which enforces the Sunshine Law, has also stated its awareness of the legislation.