House approves ethics reforms for local officials, open records exemption changes

The Missouri House has voted to enact a number of ethics reforms for local  officials, but support for the bill was tempered by an amendment that creates exemptions to the state’s open records, or “Sunshine,” law.

Representatives Nick Schroer (left) offered an amendment adding exemptions to Missouri’s open records law to a bill sponsored by Representative Shamed Dogan that dealt with ethics reform for local officials. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 445 extends to local officials the ethics policies that state lawmakers and statewide officials are now subject to.  It would bar lobbyists from making expenditures for local government officials, superintendents, or members of school boards or charter school governing boards.  Such expenditures could also not be made for those officials’ staffs or specific members of their families.

The bill would also keep elected or appointed local officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office.  It would limit to $5 per day the amount a gift to such officials can cost, and cap at $2000 any campaign contributions for municipal, political subdivision, and special district office races.

Bill sponsor Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) has proposed that language for several years, based on how he saw local officials being lobbied while he was a city councilman in Ballwin.

“This is simply making sure that that same ethical standard to which we hold ourselves is also going to apply to our local elected officials, who have the same level of public trust, who are also trusted with taxpayer dollars, and who we also expect not to profit from their public service,” said Dogan.

A previous year’s version of Dogan’s bill received 149 votes when the House sent it to the Senate.  This year’s version passed out of the House on Thursday, 103-47.  Democrats said the lessening of support was due to an amendment to Dogan’s bill that they say “guts” Missouri’s open records law that has been in place since 1973.

“I appreciate [Representative Dogan] and his quest to make Missouri a better place and also improve the perception that people have and the confidence that folks have in their elected officials,” said Kansas City Democrat Jon Carpenter.

“But at the same time I’m going to vote against House Bill 445 today because unfortunately it doesn’t just do those things.  It also upends almost five decades of open records and transparency law in this state.  In fact almost unquestionably, when this bill passes it’s going to be the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” said Carpenter.

The amendment, offered by Representative Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon), would add to exemptions from the Sunshine law any personal cell phone numbers, social security numbers or home addresses; records of constituent case files including any correspondence between an elected official and a constituent; and any document or record “received or prepared by or on behalf of” an elected or appointed official “consisting of advice, opinions, and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

“I took a massive interest in trying to protect the integrity of our positions,” said Schroer.

Schroer discussed with Representative Steve Helms (R-Springfield) incidents in the news that he said are the types of things he wants to prevent.

Representative Jon Carpenter and other Democrats said the changes HB 445 would make to Missouri’s open records law go too far. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

“The Huffington Post ruined an entire family for one person’s tweets, doxing them,” said Schroer.

“So you mean the Huffington Post printed private, personal information out on social media because they disagreed with a tweet that one of the family members made?” asked Helms.

“Correct,” said Schroer.  “They accessed personal information just like I am trying to protect here.”

Democrats were largely unmoved by the concerns Schroer cited.

“I believe [Representative Schroer] protests way too much,” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“I don’t think the statute we have currently in place allows half of what he’s just told us is sunshineable … I don’t hand out people’s social security numbers.  I won’t give addresses.  I’m covered in the law that we have today.”

Dogan said he felt the provisions offered by Schroer regarding constituent information were necessary.

“I am concerned about people’s e-mail addresses, phone numbers, other personal information being a part of the public disclosure and us not being able to redact that information really is concerning,” said Dogan.  “With that said I’m not sure about the portion that has been the most controversial where it’s talking about all communications.  I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat.”

Several Republicans voted against HB 445.  Dogan said most or all of those were likely opposed to campaign finance limits, which many Republicans believe limit free speech.

Today’s vote sends the legislation to the Senate, where several lawmakers in both parties said they expect it will undergo further revisions.

House staff efforts to respond to ‘Clean Missouri’ sunshine provisions continue

Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters in November approved Constitutional Amendment 1, better known as “Clean Missouri.”  The Amendment included language that would extend the application of the state’s open records law to the state’s lawmakers.

Chief Clerk of the Missouri House Dana Rademan Miller  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Since its passage, Missouri House staff has been examining what it will mean for state representatives as well as the citizens they serve.

Otherwise known as the “Sunshine Law,” the open records law dating back to 1973 allows members of the public to request records from any public governmental body.  The House and the Senate had been exempt prior to Clean Missouri taking effect on December 6.

The chief clerk of the House, Dana Rademan Miller, said while the House’s administration has always responded to Sunshine requests, this will be new for some individual members.

“Our members … want to do what’s right and they want to comply with the law, but there’s a learning curve because a long-standing position was held that the members’ records were closed,” said Miller.

Miller said the House began working on updated policies to educate members shortly after Amendment 1 passed, and that work continues.

The House has provided members and their staffs with a memo outlining the provisions of Amendment 1 and materials from the Attorney General’s Office on Sunshine Law compliance, briefed incoming freshman lawmakers, and held additional meetings on managing Sunshine requests.

“We’ll be bringing in the Attorney General’s Office … They’ve got a Sunshine Unit.  They can help provide some training to the members … they’re experts on the Sunshine Law,” said Miller.  “[We’re also] talking to the Secretary of State’s Office and the State Archivist, and the Director of the Records Commission, getting their insight and advice.  They’re very willing to help members as they draft their retention policies.”

One particular area members are being educated on is what should be released in response to a request, and what should not be.

Miller said the Sunshine Law outlines more than 20 exemptions to what information should be released.

“We are making sure that the members are understanding what those exemptions are and that they are redacting information that should be redacted – for instance, personally identifiable information; social security numbers, that sort of information – but also on the other side, not redacting information that’s not protected,” said Miller.

Miller said that there are parts of the Sunshine Law that could benefit from clarification, and that interpretation of some provisions varies.  She said the language regarding exemptions is one such case.

“I think that there’s [an] understanding that we probably need to look at clarifying some of those provisions, not just for our lawmakers but also for all public governmental entities so that we can all be on the same page and everybody understands what should be provided,” said Miller.

Members of the Missouri House were sworn in on January 9, 2019, for the beginning of the 2019 legislative session.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The way the new constitutional provision is worded makes clear that each representative will be the custodian of records for his or her office.

“That makes sense to some extent because each member, they maintain their own records and they maintain their own e-mail account … so I understand that, but at the same time it makes it difficult for enforcement of any blanket policy on what a Sunshine policy [must] look like and maybe what a retention policy should look like – we could potentially have 163 policies and they may all be different,” said Miller.

Miller hopes the inclusion of individual lawmakers in the requirements of the Sunshine Law doesn’t discourage constituents from reaching out to those lawmakers to seek help.  She did say that members of the public should consider leaving personally identifiable information out of initial correspondence.

“We don’t want there to be a chilling effect on the ability for constituents to talk to their members,” said Miller.  “We also might want to be mindful that those records are [presumed to be] open and we need to be able to educate the constituents as well that some of the information they provide might be subject to scrutiny by another party if the documents are ‘sunshined.’”

Miller stresses that in her discussions with representatives, they haven’t been looking for ways to skirt open records requirements placed on their offices.

“I really think that in the end the records component of Clean Missouri is not a bad thing.  …  We have a duty to be transparent and responsive and I think that’s what this is going to do,” said Miller.

Of course, other portions of Amendment 1 have been the subject of discussions with lawmakers, including the prohibition against campaigning while in the Capitol and on other state property; and a $5 limit on gifts to legislators.  Miller said the respective caucuses have also been discussing the implementation of the new provisions and that the work to implement the changes will continue.