On January 24, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway announced a new transparency initiative: a website where she is making every completed Sunshine Law request for records made to her office available online free of charge. On January 31, she then called on Governor Mike Parson to do the same with Sunshine Requests to his office. Galloway will be running against Parson in the upcoming gubernatorial election.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Governor Parson told The American, “Governor Parson is a firm believer in transparency” but did not respond as to whether his office would create a website like Galloway’s.
The Sunshine Law requires public officials and public bodies to make all non-classified records, which can include everything from meeting minutes to police reports to emails, available to any member of the public that requests them in the manner indicated in the law.
Though some municipal politicians have created similar databases – St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones has Sunshine records dating back to 2013 available on her website – Galloway is the first state-level official to take this action. Now, over 200,000 pages of Sunshine-requested documents are available on her website for the public.
"As Missouri's independent watchdog, I consistently encourage governments at all levels to adopt policies that strengthen the trust of taxpayers," Galloway said. "We're setting a new standard for transparency by posting Sunshine requests made to my office and our responses. This is the public's business, and it should be publicly accessible."
The move has been applauded by the Missouri Press Association, among others.
During Galloway’s tenure, she noted in a press release, she has never charged fees to any individual or entity for the fulfillment of any Sunshine Law request. This is different from the process used by many other public entities, who are under current law allowed to charge for the release of records under the Sunshine Law – including attorney’s fees to determine which records should be publicly accessible and which should not.
Parson, for example, charged attorney Elad Gross $3,618 for a public records request—an amount which Gross is now suing over, while running for Missouri attorney general as a Democrat. Gross’ lawsuit, currently in the Court of Appeals, alleges that these fees are deliberately leveraged to make public records inaccessible. Gross’ suit is backed by the ACLU of Missouri, the Sunshine and Accountability Project, and the Missouri Freedom Center.
Gross also claims that Attorney General Eric Schmitt is encouraging Parson and others to apply these fees (though Schmitt himself does not charge for Sunshine records from his office).
As attorney general, Schmitt is responsible for ensuring proper application of the Sunshine Law. He displays the number of requests to his office on its website. He has had a Sunshine data portal available to the public since March 2019. Unlike Galloway’s website, Schmitt’s portal does not provide the text of any documents requested, or the specific titles of the documents, or their specific subject matter. It only lists the number of requests and complaints by region and month.
“Ensuring that government is as open and accountable to its citizens as possible is an important duty of my job as custodian and enforcer of the Sunshine Law,” said Schmitt. “In instances where the Sunshine Law is not being enforced or followed properly, we will take action wherever possible to ensure that citizens are able to properly follow what their government is doing.”
He has recently filed lawsuits against the cities of Bel-Ridge, Wood Heights, and Garden City for alleged Sunshine Law violations.
According to another 2020 challenger for attorney general, Schmitt’s own record on transparency is “in need of improvement.”
“The attorney general’s office, like other public agencies, should maintain the greatest degree of transparency while carrying out its supportive and law-enforcement functions,” said Richard Finneran, a former federal prosecutor also running for attorney general as a Democrat. “Auditor Galloway’s initiative is a big step in the right direction.”
Gross agreed. “Because so many of these files are electronic, it’s easy to just put them online,” Gross said. “It’s not like she’s charging an attorney to do it. She’s decided what is closed and what is open. And, really, there’s no reason why any government entity shouldn’t be putting that stuff online for the public to see right now. It should be standard.”
For Galloway, this move is a step towards updating Sunshine Law proceedings to reflect the realities of a world in which most data exists and is shared online. She noted that the Missouri State Sunshine Law was implemented over 45 years ago, well before e-mail and modern technology.
“I would like to see the Sunshine Law updated to address the new realities of technology,” said.
She said she hopes that other state governing bodies will follow her lead – in particular, the office of the governor, which she hopes to run starting next year.
“When public business is done, it should be done in an open and transparent way,” Galloway said, “and I want to lead by example.”
The State Auditor’s fulfilled Sunshine requests from 2015-present can be viewed at https://app.auditor.mo.gov/sunshinepostings/index.aspx.