Where the Sun Don't Shine

Missouri's Sunshine Law guarantees open government for all. Trouble is, prosecutors don't enforce it and legislators won't fix it. Just ask the folks fighting City Hall.

James Spradlin knew he had a slam-dunk when he sued the Fulton City Council for holding secret meetings. The way he figured it, elected officials in the Show-Me State can't hide behind closed doors to discuss taxpayer-subsidized projects like the golf course and residential subdivision near his home. That's plain wrong, he argued, and in 1998, the state Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

Yet today, Spradlin considers himself a loser.

Even though the courts said Fulton officials violated state law and a judge issued an injunction ordering the council to hold open meetings, Spradlin didn't win attorneys' fees. After spending about $10,000 of his own money to prove a point, Spradlin, a tree farmer, now says he probably wouldn't do it again. As he sees it, the only person who ended up paying for the council's illegal meetings was Spradlin.

James Spradlin sued the Fulton City Council, spending about $10,000 in attorneys' fees to enforce the Sunshine Law.
Jennifer Silverberg
James Spradlin sued the Fulton City Council, spending about $10,000 in attorneys' fees to enforce the Sunshine Law.

"They'd be in big trouble if every police officer, when they arrested somebody, had to pay for the prosecution," quips Spradlin.

That's the way it goes with the Sunshine Law in Missouri, where it helps to be tenacious and wealthy.

The 27-year-old statute sounds so simple, so good-government, so mom-and-apple-pie that it's rarely put under a microscope. On paper, the statute says records kept by public agencies belong to everyone: The crackhead on the corner should have the same access to documents as a corporate CEO. Copying fees aren't supposed to exceed the actual cost of duplicating records. City councils and other governmental bodies can't meet behind closed doors to discuss public business. Sure, there are a few exceptions -- closed-door meetings are OK if elected officials are talking about sensitive personnel matters, lawsuits or certain types of real-estate transactions. But the law is supposed to be "liberally construed." That means the government is supposed to think carefully before keeping things secret and err on the side of openness. If public knowledge won't harm taxpayers, then the government should keep things public.

In practice, the state Sunshine Law has serious flaws. The law is supposed to protect the rights of all Missourians, but it often doesn't work unless a citizen has deep pockets and a good lawyer. Local prosecutors and Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who are charged with enforcing the law, simply don't. And though the law is routinely stretched and flouted, legislators have also proved loath to do anything.

Just ask the Olivette residents who waged a protracted fight against a $120 million shopping center that would have wiped out 300 homes and required a record $40 million tax subsidy. City officials seemed hellbent on approving the project and were equally determined to keep their dealings with developers under wraps, in spite of the Sunshine Law.

The Olivette project was born in secrecy. Two development firms, THF Realty and the Sansone Group, approached the city with a proposal for an 80-acre site, at Olive Boulevard and Interstate 170, that contained more than 10 percent of the city's population. In 1997, they began signing sales options with homeowners. In the spring of 1998, the companies each gave the city written development proposals, then combined forces shortly afterward and submitted a single package. The proposed shopping center would have required the largest tax-increment financing (TIF) subsidy in St. Louis County history and would have dramatically transformed the small city.

City officials said the project would provide much-needed tax revenue. But those same officials insisted on negotiating the deal in secret and keeping key information from the public. They would not make site plans or other parts of the proposals public, nor would they tell citizens the size of the proposed tax subsidy.

The secrecy in Olivette upset supporters and opponents of the project. While the documents were under wraps, both sides complained that the city was keeping them in the dark. Property owners who had agreed to sell their homes, typically at twice market value, were eager to learn details and fearful that sales options would expire. Opponents who lived elsewhere were worried about traffic and the aesthetics of the proposed shopping center.

City Manager Tim Pickering and City Attorney Thomas Cunningham say they kept the documents secret because the Sunshine Law says -- but does not require -- that documents related to a negotiated contract may be withheld until an agreement is signed or all proposals are rejected. Cunningham and Pickering, the city's chief negotiators, say they didn't want to undermine the city's position as they crafted a redevelopment agreement with the developers and settled on the size of the tax subsidy.

But their actions belie their words. Eight months before releasing site plans and other basic elements of the proposal, Pickering told the Olivette Economic Development Council, a private business group, that the developers were seeking $41 million in tax subsidies, a figure the city had never released to the public. "I'm not a lawyer by any stretch, but there's no doubt that the people in charge in Olivette thought that they were the law," says Dan Mihalopoulos, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who covered suburban cities until taking a job with the Chicago Tribune last fall. Mihalopoulos, who wrote a story after obtaining a copy of the minutes of the meeting, says Pickering called him after the Aug. 4, 1998, story was published and wanted to know who gave him the minutes. "Essentially what you had there was a record subsidy being given away, the city -- meaning Pickering -- refusing to give that information to the press and the public but sharing it with a group of elite business leaders," he recalls. "They were trying to release the information when they saw fit."

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