‘Sunshine’ Expert: Public Office Requires More Accountability Than Social Media
Missouri’s new governor, Mike Parson, has gone out of his way to signal that he intends to make government transparency a top priority—that stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Eric Greitens, who resigned June 1.
KSMU’s Jennifer Moore sat down with Dr. Jonathan Groves to discuss some of the major events in the Greitens administration. Groves is the president and a founding member of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, which promotes government transparency – and he chairs the Department of Communication at Drury University in Springfield.
Former Gov. Greitens made waves at his inauguration when he refused to disclose donors who helped fund a series of expensive inaugural events. That kicked off a trend of refusing to disclose information.
“It struck me as unusual for especially someone who is holding the top office in the state of Missouri to have such a culture of secrecy and a lack of availability to the public," Groves said.
Greitens also quickly signaled that neither he nor his top staff members would be holding regular press briefings for journalists.
In the era of social media, many politicians have official Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, which they use to communicate news and their opionions on policy issues. Instead of inviting the press pool on official tours and taking questions with each stop, as past governors have traditionally done, Greitens would often post his own summary to his official Facebook page.
"The only problem with that approach is it’s a very one way conversation," said Groves.
"Yes, there are comments on a Facebook page. But you can pick and choose what comments you want to respond to. You can moderate comments and delete comments because the law is not very clear on what you’re supposed to do with regards to social media," Groves said.
Historically, Groves said, what Americans have expected of the people that serve in government is that the public can ask questions, whether they’re journalists or citizens, and that they can expect answers from their public officials.
The Greitens administration had string of issues related to transparency – including a story broken by the Kansas City Star that several of Greitens’ staff members were using a secretive app, Confide, which deletes information once its been reviewed. That caught the attention of Attorney General Josh Hawley, who said Missouri needed to beef up its Sunshine Law—which is all about the public’s access to government record.
Groves agrees that the law needs revising.
“What I would say is that our law hasn’t been updated in a while and it hasn’t done a very good job of keeping up with technology," Groves said.
The intersection of public issues and technology raises very specific questions, he said.
"How do we deal with access? How do we deal with open meetings? Is it, if I am having my group meet on a Confide app, is that actually a meeting or is it just a simple conversation?" Groves said.
Right now, the courts are having to answer these questions, which is often a costly process that not everyone can afford, he added.
Groves said is's also "very difficult" to get reimbursed for fees in some of those court cases.
Missourians should learn, he said, from the lack of transparency that the Greitens administration brought to the state.
“What we’ve seen over the past several months is that there are a lot of people in government that are serving, and people in public spaces, that are very concerned about a government that’s operated in secrecy, especially when it comes to money," Groves said.
"So if there is money flowing through different shell companies or organizations or non-profits, and key information about those donors, the public really has a right to know that information. Because how are we supposed to know who is influencing the decisions made in our state government unless we know where that money is?" Groves said.
Openness is one major factor that separates a democratic republic from other systems, where corruption is allowed to thrive, Groves said.
“Well, what it does is: it affects our trust in government. If we don’t have a clear picture of how decisions are made and what might be influencing those decisions, we are going to lose faith in our public leaders," Groves said.
Groves clarified he did not want to speculate on whether there was any corruption behind Greitens' secretive fundraising.
"The thing is that we just don’t know what happened because we haven’t been able to see what exactly has been going on with A New Missouri – the money flow is not very clear so we don’t have a clear understanding of what was going on," Groves said.
Similarly, Groves added, with the use of the Confide app, the former governor and his staff were essentially "saying, 'Trust us, there is nothing in there that would have violated the Sunshine Law.' Well, we have no way of checking that. And our government officials really should allow us to spot check them, to double-check them, and the only way to do that is with complete transparency.”
Earlier this year, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley urged lawmakers to make three major changes to how the state enforces its public records laws:
· to create a new division within his office that would have independence when investigating state violators of the Sunshine Law, Missouri’s open records law.
· to give the Attorney General power to issues subpoenas when investigating public records law cases.
· to create a penalty for violating the records retention law
That proposed legislation did not make it past a Senate committee in Jefferson City.