New Report Finds Widespread Lack of Government Transparency
Study highlights the difficulty and expense of obtaining public records in the St. Louis Region
St. Louis, MO (March 16, 2015) – Today Better Together released its Transparency Report, which outlines obstacles that citizens face when attempting to obtain publicly available data from many local governments. The report, which resulted from Better Together’s own experience attempting to gather public information, describes a frequent disregard for the Missouri Sunshine Law.
“The Sunshine Law clearly states that local governments must make public information available to citizens,” said Better Together Executive Director Nancy Rice. “However, many governments’ response – or lack of response – to our request shows an alarming absence of transparency.”
While the Sunshine Law’s requirements are clear, its application is inconsistent. Better Together’s requests for information were met with many roadblocks (for example, one municipality requested $2,000 for the same type of information that was provided free-of-charge by others).
After more than 130 days, several St. Louis County municipalities have still failed to fulfill the Sunshine Request. These include Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Clayton, Country Club Hills, Hazelwood, Hillsdale, Kinloch, Lakeshire, Manchester, Pine Lawn, St. Ann, University City, and Vinita Park.
To obtain information from some local governments, both time and financial investments were significant. State law permits governments to recover the expenses incurred when fulfilling a Sunshine Law request and the way that governments respond to that varies widely. Bellefontaine Neighbors took 85 days to fulfill the request, at a price of $770.90, while Des Peres took 65 days and charged Better Together $738.50. Pacific took 63 days and charged $1,082.64. Manchester has yet to fulfill the request but has charged $800 to date. As of today, Better Together’s collection of this data has cost $15,909.30.
Some municipalities did reply quickly and with minimal cost. Bel-Ridge fulfilled the request in five days, free of charge. Normandy and Shrewsbury fulfilled the request in less than two weeks and did not charge for the records. St. Louis City completed the request in ten days, free of charge; St. Louis County provided records free-of-charge within six days. Ladue fulfilled the request the same day that Better Together made it and did not charge. These are the exceptions, though, and not the rule.
The sheer number of governments in the St. Louis region makes it difficult for citizens to stay informed about government spending and related activities. The difficult becomes impossible when those governments refuse to make information (that is public by law) available in a timely and cost-effective manner.
If passed, Missouri House Bill 934, sponsored by Representative Jay Barnes, would represent a major step towards full transparency. The bill, which received a public hearing last week, specifies that every Missouri county and municipality must operate its own government website available to members of the public. The website must be updated monthly and include, among other information, the most recent financial report and adopted budget.
“Citizens should not have to struggle to obtain information from the very governments designed to serve them,” said Rice. “To state what might be obvious: It’s impossible to review the performance of a government if you lack information about the government.”
To view the full report, visit www.bettertogetherstl.com/transparency-report.