The same day as Randall Williams’ sudden resignation as Missouri’s top health official, another key member of the executive branch left his job without any explanation.
Drew Erdmann, chief operating officer for the governor’s office, also stepped down last month.
Unlike Williams, there was no press release acknowledging Erdmann’s departure. But just like Williams, Gov. Mike Parson’s office has refused to release Erdmann’s resignation letter.
In response to an open records request, Caroline Coulter, the deputy general counsel for the governor’s office, cited the same provision of the Sunshine Law used to deny The Independent’s previous request for Williams’ resignation letter.
The section of the law cited permits governmental bodies to close “individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment.”
Under that provision, Erdmann’s resignation letter is considered a closed record in its entirety, and will not be provided, Coulter wrote in a letter in response to The Independent’s request.
Erdmann and a spokeswoman for the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.
On Monday, The Independent filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, the agency tasked with overseeing enforcement of the Sunshine Law, requesting the denials for both Williams and Erdmann’s resignation letters be reviewed.
Missourians have little means for recourse if they believe government entities have violated the Sunshine Law. They can voice their concerns to the entity in question, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office or pursue legal action.
But if the complaint involves state agencies or the executive branch, the Attorney General’s Office has historically been unlikely to take action — leaving a costly lawsuit often the only remaining option.
Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, pointed to previous court rulings as evidence that resignation letters are public records.
A 1989 ruling from a Missouri Court of Appeals found that a severance agreement reached between an outgoing superintendent and school district was a public record, and sided with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who had requested its disclosure.
“Public employees may not wish their employment contracts known, but this personal desire is insignificant when contrasted to the public’s interest in knowing what their public servants are being paid and under what terms and conditions,” the ruling read. “The General Assembly did not expressly create an exception for employment contracts and we decline to do so by implication.”
Resignation letters aren’t individually identifiable personnel records for similar reasons, Rhodes said.
“It doesn’t identify any type of confidential information that goes in someone’s personnel record, for which there is an expectation of privacy. It’s simply saying ‘I quit,’ and maybe it says, ‘Give the reasons why I quit,’” Rhodes said. “But that’s the whole point.”
Dave Roland, the director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency, said he’s seen instances across the state where open records requests related to an employee are treated under the personnel records exemption. In this instance, deeming the resignation letters closed is a choice, not a mandate under the law, Roland said.
“The closure of these records, under this particular justification, are discretionary. There’s nothing that says they have to be treated as closed. This is a choice that the governor’s office has made,” Roland said. “And I think that — barring something really unforeseen that I don’t know of — I think that they’re making the wrong choice.”
The issue speaks to a larger trend across administrations of an instinct to obscure information, rather than reveal it, Roland said. Ultimately, he said residents’ ability to make informed decisions is hurt as a result.
“We can’t even get clues as to why they think it’s so important, because they’re keeping the whole thing off-limits,” Roland said of closing the records in their entirety, later adding: “We should have public officials who are striving to give the people as much information as possible, not striving to keep as much information off-limits as they can.”
What’s more, in the case of Williams’ resignation, Rhodes noted that he was an employee of the Department of Health and Senior Services — not the governor’s office. Williams was paid a little over $147,500 through DHSS in 2020, according to state records.
“So you can’t have a personnel record with a non-employee,” Rhodes said.
In response to a records request to DHSS for Williams’ resignation letter, a spokeswoman for the department previously said the department did not have it in their possession.
Parson told reporters earlier this month that he asked both Erdmann and Williams to resign, but praised their “outstanding work” amid an “extremely difficult” year on the frontlines responding to the novel coronavirus’ spread.
Both resignations were effective immediately.
In a farewell letter published in The Missouri Times last week, Williams wrote that after four years of being away from his family, he was honoring his commitment to them that this would be his last year on the job.
In his place, Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff was named as acting director of DHSS. While Parson said he hopes to find a permanent replacement for Williams’ position within two months, he did not definitively say whether the position of chief operating officer will continue.
The position was created by former Gov. Eric Greitens, who hired Erdmann from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where Erdmann was a partner.
In addition to launching leadership training programs for state government employees, Erdmann also worked to foster greater collaboration across Missouri’s 16 executive agencies, especially when it came to responding to the pandemic.
“People want to keep things in-house, they want to keep it narrow, they don’t want to share, they don’t want to share good news, they don’t want to share bad news, they don’t want to share news. They want to keep it under control, and in some cases, it becomes a starting point. That’s not where we are today, but that was a challenge we faced along the way,” Erdmann said during an April conference on creating a “data culture” amid the pandemic, according to StateScoop.
In 40 years, Rhodes said he has never seen a resignation letter be deemed a closed record. The public is entitled to know why government officials who are paid with taxpayer dollars are leaving their positions, he said.
“I don’t understand government officials,” Rhodes said, “who think that when public controversy arises, the way to squelch it is to create more controversy by hiding things.”
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.