Doug Crews is recognized around the nation for his advocacy work as executive director of the Missouri Press Association (MPA). He supports journalism-related issues as a registered lobbyist to the Missouri Legislature and throughout the state. Crews also oversees MPA’s convention and meeting planning activities as well as its advertising sales. He has served in numerous leadership positions for the industry’s foremost professional organizations, including the Newspaper Association Managers and the National Newspaper Association. —From Missouri School of Journalism website
The Sunshine Law in Missouri and the federal law on the national level are so important for citizens to have the opportunity to find out what their public officials are doing, what their tax money is being spent for, to have participation in government, to come to open meetings. I wish we didn’t have to have a Sunshine Law, I wish government was just automatically open but it certainly hasn’t been and isn’t. That’s why these laws primarily came on the books since the early 1970s; Missouri’s law was passed in 1973. And I do a lot of … one of my job is to lobby in Jefferson City, the state capital, and we watch Sunshine Law issues all the time. January through May, every year. And we occasionally, and we’re hoping to this year, introduce a bill that would have a number of provisions that would help strengthen Missouri Sunshine Law. I won’t get into too many details there but we haven’t filed one in a few years or had a legislator file for us.
We just see a constant chipping away at our Sunshine Law. I don’t know. You almost think that many public bodies or associations of public bodies want to try to do their business in private rather than in public, maybe it’s a lot easier to do their business in the dark than in the light.
Where we’d like to see improvements made… for instance, research fees. Some public bodies require a large research fee if you want to get public records, and in effect it just closes off public records from the public. Records that are owned by the public, that are for the public, but you can’t get at them because you have to pay a large research fee to get those records. That’s one thing. There are a lot of stumbling blocks, I have to admit, in our law and we’d like to see some changes made.
Has gov’t closed off more in the years or opened up?
I think government and government attorneys try to find loopholes every chance they get and I think, in that way, I could say… I hear about new twists all the time like, ‘they’re closing this record because…” and I didn’t read the law that way but some attorney has out there.
The Sunshine Law is for the people. The media looks at that law a lot, keeps an eye on that law, in Jefferson City, for instance, and tries to increase accessibility and that kind of thing through legislation, but it’s really the people’s law. One thing we’re seeing is more and more people are using the Sunshine Law. Just ordinary citizens trying to get their government more open and that’s a positive sign. It wasn’t written for the media, although the media uses the law all the time, but it was really written for the public.
One thing is Missouri’s laws for penalties. I can count on one hand how many penalties have been levied over the last two decades in Missouri. Rarely is anyone fined and the fine can be up to $5,000 for a really egregious offense, for penalties not complying with the law. Our law is written that the penalty is, if found guilty for the offense, the penalty can be up to $5,000 or up to $1,000. That means it could be a dollar, by the way. And I don’t want to levy a large… you could put the penalty a million dollars but I think government in Missouri still sometimes thumbs its nose at the Sunshine Law because it knows that there’s not much there in the way of penalty.
Talk a little more about your lobbying?
Well we put together a wish list of things we’d like to see done to the Sunshine Law. For instance, there’s an exception in the law for litigation, for if you’re talking to your attorney. If a legislative body or public body is talking to their attorney they can do that. We want to tighten that up a bit because that exception is used a lot. They go into, ‘we may be sued on this issue, so let’s go into closed session.’ City councils say that, school boards, whatever, and that’s pretty loose. You can be sued on anything, so unless there’s a lawsuit that was actually filed or a threat of a lawsuit, we can see the opportunity there to go into closed session… but they just use that.
Again, research fees is a big deal.
We see attacks on the Sunshine Law. Many years ago, the Missouri County Collector’s Association wanted to close down tax records and ultimately close down records in their office and they cited privacy reasons but, my gosh, I ought to be able to go in, how much I pay in property taxes should be an open record. How much the mayor pays in property taxes should be an open record. And they were wanting to close down this kind of information which, again for privacy reasons. I believe there was a commercial company that was going in and mining this kind of information. That was the reason they cited for trying to close this information but, you know, there’s unintended consequences. That information needs to be open in a free society. I need to know what my neighbor is paying, what their house is assessed at, that sort of thing, that’s why records at the courthouse need to be open.
What advice would you give the public in trying to access these records?
The best advice I could give would be to stick with it. Be persistent. The Attorney General has a good book out that gives a suggested way to request records from a public body. I’d follow those. I’d put my request in writing although the law doesn’t require your requests to be in writing, just to have a paper trail. Don’t take that first no for an answer. In Missouri, they’re supposed to give you an answer within three business days after you make that request for a record. After that three days they can tell you I’m not going to give you the records and here’s the reasons why.
Anything else you want to talk about?
The Sunshine Law is just at the base of our government, it’s so important that we have the Sunshine Law, it’s so important that we keep public officials on their toes. We need to remind public officials that they’re doing the work of their constituents, of their people. When they get in office, those records all of a sudden don’t belong to them exclusively. They’re doing the work of the people. We’re all stockholders in this country of ours and they’re our representatives and we own the stock and we want to know what they’re doing as far as leading the company. It’s just a basic tool that people need to know about but it’s a basic tool that government officials need to have a background on, too.
Just a couple weeks ago I was up in Maryville, Missouri. We did a workshop for public officials on the Sunshine Law. We have an attorney who works for the Missouri Press Association and she conducted the workshop. Had about 40 people there and I admire those folks who came out and spent a couple hours learning more about the Sunshine Law. I wish they would have had 140 people there instead of 40 but… It’s just like following the laws when you’re out on the highway, local officials need to know the laws of the Sunshine Law.