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Missouri attorney general expects to end Sunshine Law backlog by May

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey speaks during a press conference on anti-trans measures on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, at the Old St. Louis Post Office Building in Downtown. In September, Bailey’s office filed a lawsuit against the Wentzville School District Board saying they held discussions regarding policies around the use of bathrooms in private meetings rather than open to the public.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey speaks during a press conference on anti-trans measures on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, at the Old St. Louis Post Office Building in Downtown. In September, Bailey’s office filed a lawsuit against the Wentzville School District Board saying they held discussions regarding policies around the use of bathrooms in private meetings rather than open to the public.

After clearing a backlog of public records requests by his predecessor, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey told lawmakers his office expects to finalize all sunshine requests submitted in the last year by May.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that his office completed work on the 224 pending records requests that were left unfinished by his predecessor and expects to finalize all requests submitted in the last year by May.

Questioned by the House Budget Committee on Tuesday about his office’s massive Sunshine Law backlog, Bailey said he has dedicated more resources to processing public records requests than any previous attorney general.

“For the first time in my knowledge at the Attorney General’s Office, we have a full-time employee that all they do is custodial records work,” he said, later adding: “Four other staff members assist in that endeavor.”

When he took over the office in January 2023, Bailey inherited 224 unfinished requests that had been submitted by the public to former Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Some of those requests had been pending since 2021.

To tackle the backlog, Bailey implemented a policy to work through requests on a first-come, first-serve basis. That meant newer inquiries that were small and easily dispensed with sat in limbo as staff worked on older and more expansive requests.

For example, a request in November for two days of Bailey’s official calendar — typically turned around in a matter of days by other government agencies — was projected to take six months to complete.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Bailey said Tuesday that the backlog should be a thing of the past by the end of May.

“I say that as an anticipated date,” he said, “because as you begin reviewing records, the volume of records that are caught in the search, it could be 10 records, it could be 10,000 records.”

Bailey has drawn criticism from transparency advocates over how he’s handled the backlog, especially given the attorney general’s office is the agency that enforces the Sunshine Law in Missouri.

Madeline Sieren, Bailey’s spokesperson, defended the office’s dedication to upholding open records laws by noting that the attorney general’s office completed 56 separate Sunshine Law trainings last year — double Schmitt’s first year as attorney general in 2019 and up from 51 in 2022 and 42 in 2021.

She said the attorney general’s office also “significantly improved the efficiency, speed and results in addressing Sunshine Law complaints.”

“Since Jan. 3, 2023,” she said, “we have closed 525 Sunshine Law complaints, which were received both this year and in previous years.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jason Hancock