COLUMBIA, Mo. - If your friend asks to borrow money, you may ask them, "What for?" Missouri's Sunshine Law is designed to make sure we, as taxpayers, know what our state and local entities are doing with our money.
Is the law being followed and enforced? In an ABC 17 News Special Report, Marissa Hollowed found your government may be shutting you out.
"They didn't want to turn these records over, so they wanted to make it as burdensome as they possibly could on us," Daniel Kolde told ABC 17 News in his St. Louis office.
Kolde is the attorney for a group called Beagle Freedom Project.
"We are trying to identify lab animals that are being used in research that could be potentially be adoptable," said Kolde about the group's mission.
Beagle Freedom Project filed a records request with the University of Missouri asking for information about 179 cats and dogs the university uses for research.
The university responded by asking for $82,222.33 in exchange for the information.
"I thought it had to be a mistake. That was my first thought. We were like, no, the comma is in the wrong place," said Kolde.
"When we got the $82,000 back we turned around and filed a lawsuit," said Kolde. Beagle Freedom Project is suing the University of Missouri for violation of Sunshine Law.
ABC 17 News reached out to the University of Missouri about the lawsuit. The university said it will not comment on pending litigation.
"The average citizen is probably getting shut out of their local government when they make these type of records requests," said Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway.
It is Galloway's responsibility to act as watchdog. She said her focus is to hold state and local agencies accountable and promote transparency.
"That's my job and I take it seriously," said Galloway.
A few months ago, Galloway sent records requests at random to 309 state entities mimicking the way an average citizen would send a request.
"What we found was disappointing."
Seventy percent of agencies did not fully comply with Galloway's request.
"I think with a 30 percent compliance rate for our records request, that there is a problem with transparency and accountability," said Galloway.
ABC 17 News also put out a request to 16 mid-Missouri schools, law enforcement departments and city governments that all rely on taxpayer money.
Each request was exactly the same. ABC 17 News asked for all documents related to travel expenses for 2015 within their department.
Under the Sunshine Law, each request has to be acknowledged in three days. For our request, each agency complied with this.
The law also says, the fees for a request can be waived if the information is in the "public's interest."
The law does say though that agencies can charge for research time as long as they use their lowest-paid employee who can get the job done.
For my request, I got bills ranging anywhere from $0.00 to more than $7,000.
Here are some of the big findings:
- Lincoln University did not have a report already available, so it quoted me at $7,256.66 for the information.
- The Missouri State Highway Patrol quoted me at $429.04.
- The Cole County Commission quoted me at $720 for the information.
- Hallsville Schools gave me the information at $0.00.
- The City of Columbia gave me the information at $0.00.
- Jefferson City gave me the information for $0.00.
- The University of Missouri declined to put together a request. It told me it could still provide me with a cost estimate. I asked for the cost estimate. Fifty-five days later I still have not gotten a cost estimate.
"We also found instances in which government agencies were charging excessive fees for the public records," said Galloway.
The Springfield Police Department quoted ABC 17 News a fee of $60,294 for a request we made in 2016 asking for five years of traffic crash data.
A Columbia resident, Ken Midkiff, forwarded ABC 17 News the response he got from the city of Columbia. He was quoted upward of $1,700 for information regarding a new company coming to the city.
In 2015, ABC 17 News was quoted more than $1,500 from the Columbia Police Department for information about the number of heroin deaths and overdoses in the city.
Steve Sapp, spokesperson for the city of Columbia tells ABC 17 News the city recently spent $12,000 on a software system in hopes of speeding up and organizing the records request process.
"At the end of the day, certainly, we don't want to become involved in a lawsuit. It's expensive, it's time-consuming, and quite frankly it gives us a black eye," said Sapp.
But Kolde says entities are getting off too easy for breaking the law.
"Maybe they'll get a fine... They are not paying it anyway; the taxpayers are paying it," said Kolde.
The maximum fine for a Sunshine Law violation is $5,000.
In the Brandon Ellingson drowning case, the Missouri State Highway Patrol was fined $5,000 for withholding records from Ellinson's death investigation.
"When these agencies are allowed to stonewall, then they can just keep everything hidden, the public never gets to see it, the issue is over," said Kolde.
Here are more detailed findings regarding ABC 17 News's records request responses:
Columbia Public Schools:
CPS responded the same day I sent the request (Dec. 20). The custodian told me they would get back to me after the district’s winter break. They did and provided me with a PDF of the information for $0.00.
The University of Missouri declined to create a report. I still asked for a cost estimate. As of Feb. 13 I have not heard back. Here is what the response said:
“The maintenance of back-up documentation for travel expenses is a decentralized process and the records do not reside in one place. Because they are stored in every department across all four campuses, the estimate of costs to gather all of these records would be large. Nevertheless, if you would like us to proceed with an estimate of costs or if you would like to narrow or clarify your request before we proceed with an estimate, please let me know.
I have inquired as to whether there is an existing report that contains the location of travel, reason for travel and expense, as described in your request. I have been informed there is not an existing report. As you may be aware, the Missouri Sunshine Law does not require that a public governmental body create a document where such a document does not already exist; rather, it provides a mechanism for the public to obtain copies of existing records. The staff time required to complete this request is extensive and the University declines to create such a report.”
Lincoln University did not have a readily available report.
The university responded:
“According to our Accounting Office there is no readily available report that would provide this type of detailed travel information. They are calculating the cost to research and compile the requested materials. Lincoln University will be closed from Thursday, December 22, through Monday, January 2. We will contact you after the Holidays with the projected cost for these documents.”
Jan. 3 response:
“There is no readily available report that provides this type of detailed information. We can run reports for this period but this will be for all travel (including students, athletics, speakers, etc.) and will not have location/reason for the trip."
"If we are required to look into each expense for the details and create a spreadsheet of the information, we are estimating that it will take three employees approximately two (2) weeks’ worth of time to research and compile the data. The cost for their time (wages and benefits) totals $7,256.66.”
Hallsville Schools responded Dec. 22 with the information for $0.00.
Ashland Schools did not already have a report compiled with this information. We spoke on the phone twice to clarify the request. They told me the total dollar amount for travel. If they were to compile the report it would cost me $173.04.
Columbia Police responded to my request two days later with a receipt of my request. A few days later I got a quote for “total estimated cost for your request is $8.98.” The actual cost ended up being $12.27, so I ended up owing $3.29 more.
Jefferson City police:
Jefferson City Police responded three days after my request. He forwarded it to the City Clerk. The clerk was able to get me a report for the city (which included law enforcement) for $0.00.
I heard from the Boone County Sheriff's Department in two days. The custodian asked for clarification on a few things. I was quoted $21.11 for the research time to put together the report.
I heard back from the Missouri State Highway Patrol three days after my request in a mailed letter. I was quoted for $429.04 and was told it would take about 20 days to compile the report.
Sunrise Beach Police Department:
I heard from the Sunrise Beach Police Department the same day as my request and was told, “We do not have travel expenses for any of our employees, Our employees do not travel. It is not in our budget.”
City of Columbia:
I heard back from the City of Columbia the same day and was sent a PDF of the information for $0.00.
I heard back from Jefferson City the same day I made my request. I was asked to clarify a few things about my request. The information was sent over to me two days later for $0.00.
Boone County Commission:
I heard back from the Boone County Commission three days after my request. I sent a reminder Feb. 5 asking if a cost estimate was ready yet. The custodian apologized for the delay and sent me the records for $0.00.
Cole County Commission:
The custodian for the Cole County Commission sent over a response and basic travel information one day later. I asked for a more detailed report. I was quoted $720 for the information to be delivered electronically.
Callaway County Commission:
I heard back from the Callaway County Commission a day after my request. I reached out Feb. 5 to remind them of my request. The custodian responded Feb. 6 with a cost estimate of $33.
City of Sedalia:
I heard back the same day. I was sent a letter in the mail with a cost estimate of $300.