Court to hear appeal in Missouri open records dispute

ST. LOUIS (AP) — An open records dispute over whether the state can charge fees for the time officials spend redacting documents is headed to an appellate court.

At issue is a lawsuit filed by St. Louis lawyer Elad Gross against the administration of Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican. The lawsuit challenges a $3,618 bill Gross received last year to process an open records request related to former Gov. Eric Greitens, also a Republican, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District has not yet scheduled a hearing.

Parson’s office based the bill on an estimated 90 hours of staff processing time at $40 per hour.

Transparency advocates — including the Missouri Press Association, the Freedom Center of Missouri, the ACLU of Missouri, and the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project — filed briefs opposing the government’s ability to charge attorneys fees for records. They say those fees can drive up the cost of records requests by thousands of dollars and aren’t authorized under the Sunshine Law.

“When the public governmental body demands payment of a significant cost for the access, it is the equivalent of denying access to the public,” said Jean Maneke, legal counsel for the Missouri Press Association.

The office of Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, disagrees, contending the charges fit under a provision in state law that allows fees for “research time required for fulfilling records requests.”

Gross is a Democrat who is running for attorney general next year.

In July, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce sided with the state.

“Research, within the plain meaning of the word, includes efforts by an attorney to review documents for responsiveness, privilege, and work product,” she said in her ruling.

The attorney general’s office last implemented and updated its policy in 2014 under then-Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, said Chris Nuelle, Schmitt’s spokesman. The policy allows the office to charge $40 per hour for “activities performed by attorneys.”

But Nuelle said that Schmitt had not charged any fees associated with a Sunshine Law request since taking office almost one year ago. As attorney general, Schmitt is tasked with enforcing the Sunshine Law as well as defending state officials.

“Attorney General Schmitt believes strongly in an open and transparent government — citizens and journalists should not at all be discouraged from continuing to file Sunshine Law requests with our office,” Nuelle said.

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