How does the state bring light into darkness when the tools to do so aren’t available?

It might sound trite coming from a newspaper, but Missouri needs to strengthen and update its open records laws.

By nature, journalists seem to be the most interested in access to public information, because we are a group of people tasked, in part, with holding governments responsible to its constituents. But strong open records laws benefit all Missourians, and indeed all people living in a democratic-style government.

Missouri, however, is lacking in updated, comprehensive open records laws that have teeth in holding the powerful accountable. We’ve seen this year how weak open records laws can cast a shadow of darkness in the state’s capitol.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, among other troubles this year, has been accused of using a message-destroying mobile application to communicate with his staff members. That represents a serious problem, because the subject of those communications could fall under the umbrella of public records, but Missouri’s people may never know the content of those messages — even though we may have the right to. Greitens and his staff have said the content of those messages aren’t necessarily related to state business, and that they’re certainly not open records.

We seriously doubt the governor and his staff used the message-destroying app to schedule lunch outings.

We think it’s likely that state business WAS discussed.

But unfortunately, Missouri’s open records law doesn’t really discuss updates in commuication techniques, like mobile apps. When the state’s Attorney General began to investigate the executive branch’s use of Confide, he said he lacked subpoena power to compel the staff to provide information.

How does the state bring light into darkness when the tools to do so aren’t available?

Thankfully, some senators and representatives has recognized this gap in Missouri law and have proposed some fixes.

Senate Bill 743, originally conceived as an education bill, recently passed the House of Representatives. Attached to the bill was a House amendment that allows the Attorney General to apply for a “civil investigative demand” — known as a subpoena by most. The same amendment can compel the Attorney General to file a court petition to seek enforcement of the subpoena and make efforts to destroy evidence related to a subpoena a misdemeanor.

A similar House Bill — 2523 — would give the Attorney General the same power. Both are needed to give the state’s top attorney the tools needed to hold others in power accountable.

Unfortunately, both bills have little time remaining for passage, as the regular legislative session ends next week.

But these two bills recognize the need to sharped the state’s open records laws.

Our government is supposed to act in conjunction with the people. This includes bodies from the governor’s office all the way down to local, taxpayer-supported library boards. Open records laws are nothing to scoff at; they need to be taken seriously, and the Missouri Legislature needs to make bringing antiquated open records laws up to date in the Show-Me State. Perhaps then the use of message-destroying apps won’t even be in the discussion in the future.