Anyone who has ever owned a business — or really, just ever worked in one — has at some point thought to themselves, “Boy, if there weren’t any customers or other employees to deal with, sure could get some real work done around here!”
It’s an old aphorism, but one that some members of the Missouri General Assembly seem to have taken to heart.
As the legislature grows more fractious, more extreme and more insular, a worrying number of state legislators have lost sight of their primary mission in going to Jefferson City: to serve the will of the people who elected them.
Too many are simply there to serve their personal interests, and would prefer they be left alone to do as they please without any accountability.
This session, legislators have introduced several bills that actively work against transparency and accountability. In particular, there are several pieces of legislation that aim to make all manner of public notices more difficult for the public to find and that remove the public’s access altogether to large swaths of public records while making the process for obtaining any public record more expensive and more difficult.
Not coincidentally, these measures also take aim at newspapers in particular, but especially rural ones.
Many public notices — like notifications about public hearings, real estate transactions, bids, meeting notices and a whole host of others — are required to be placed in a local newspaper by governmental entities so that members of the public have a central, neutral place where they can see what’s going on in their community that might be of interest.
For example, if you see a rezoning hearing is scheduled for a property near yours, you might want to know when the public hearing is so that you can give your feedback. Just one example of many. Perhaps you want to see new construction jobs being bid out by local school districts so your business can put in a bid. Maybe you’re interested in a home near you that has been foreclosed on or the financial reports of local government, changes in ordinances and more.
Especially in rural areas, where the internet continues to be less accessible and where other sources of information are scarce, these notices are the best way to ensure that the largest number of people possible can plainly see information that may be important to them.
But multiple bills this session seek to do away with these public notices entirely and instead force members of the public to visit each individual agency’s website periodically to actively check what notices may be of interest to them.
The belief of some in the legislature, though, is that it should be the responsibility of the average Missourian to track down every piece of public information in order to figure out whether it’s important to them. We believe that’s exactly the opposite of how government should work, and we don’t think it’s particularly radical to think so.
But that belief — that those in the government owe nothing to the people they were elected to serve — is at the heart of the push to close off government as much as they can get away with.
That also includes a stronger push this year to close off many public records and make it harder for anyone in the public to access them.
Multiple bills under consideration aim to drastically change which records are public, particularly those involving correspondence and, of course, state legislators themselves.
House Bill 394, for example, sponsored by Bill Falkner, R-St. Joseph, would make virtually all correspondence between any state legislator and a constituent private, and any record — any record — about legislation would no longer be public.
So, for example, if you wanted to know if Mr. Falkner had ever told anyone why he thinks this would be a good idea, under the law he proposes, it would be none of your business.
The specifics of the best and fairest ways to distribute information to the public — whether it’s public notices or just public records — are always worth debating and discussing, especially as technology continues to evolve.
The question with these bills is, what problem do they address?
For the public, it is never a problem to have access to as much information as possible. It is, after all, the public’s business that the government — every level of it — conducts.
The only benefit we can see is for those who would rather run a business where the people it’s supposed to serve aren’t allowed inside, lest they get in the way of the real, important work.
Who then, exactly, are you serving?