Missouri bill would delay some public record access

Associated Press

COLUMBIA — A bill passed by the Missouri House on Thursday would put a pause on open-records requests when public agencies are closed, an attempt to ease pressure on governments during emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the measure, approved 149-1, also would cover state lawmakers who close their offices for most of the year while the Legislature is not in session. That could mean Sunshine Law requests are ignored for months. 

"The idea was if a public body is shut down due to an emergency that there is an understanding about people not being able to easily access and respond in a hurry to a request," Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke said. "It's a significant difference between saying this is an emergency and saying we're just not going to be responding to requests over a certain period of time." 

The bill is primarily focused on shielding contact lists of people who subscribe to government emails and newsletters from being released through public record requests. 

But the House last week added an amendment to the bill to exempt agencies from the state's three-day response deadline for Sunshine requests if the agency publicly posts that it will be closed for an extended time period outside of normal working hours. The agency would be required to post the closure notice at least three days in advance in order to delay record requests. 

Amendment sponsor Rep. Tony Lovasco said he felt bad for legislative staffers who had to coordinate over the summer to check for mailed requests sent to Jefferson City as the coronavirus pandemic raged.

"Certainly last summer, with a lot of people working from home, we had issues where people were having to basically run back up to the Capitol a couple times a week to check the mail box just to make sure we didn't have a Sunshine Law request," the O'Fallon Republican said.

The current version of the bill would allow government officials to delay responding to email requests as well as mailed requests. 

Lovasco said the proposal also would exempt state lawmakers who close their offices throughout the interim. Lawmakers' annual session runs from January through mid-May. They typically reconvene for a short September session and sometimes meet for a few days to a few weeks at a time if the governor calls a special session focused on a particular issue. 

Lovasco said lawmakers would face blowback if they took advantage of that provision in the bill regularly to delay answering public-record requests. 

The bill now heads to the state Senate for consideration. 

Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.