Author’s Note: In 2014, as a law student at the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Law, I wrote an analysis of Missouri Revised Statute § 67.1850. That’s the Missouri statute which grants local governments several unusual powers and great control over the public’s right to access government-held GIS data. My view is that the statute’s enumerated powers run counter to good economic development practices, common sense, and the principles supporting the public’s right to government transparency as codified in the Missouri Sunshine Act. This article makes my case for either repealing or reforming § 67.1850. I’m not just repackaging an old paper for the web. I’m going to update, enhance, and provide links that demonstrate how Missouri’s local governments are misusing the statute, and ultimately harming themselves. – Chris Dunn
I. Introduction to a Powerful Transparency Tool
The power of Geographic Information Systems (“GIS”) are unleashed by their ability to query copies of government held records and gain penetrating insights into otherwise unknowable or undiscoverable government functions. This power is the primary reason journalism and watchdog groups have rapidly begun adopting GIS. Unlike the governmental practices of a bye-gone era, many public records, once hidden in file cabinets, can now, not only be cheaply stored electronically, but are also associated with geographic features. These ‘new’ geographically-enhanced public records offer the potential of great insights into how our local governments operate – but only if they are available. .
A story from the period when the media began to discover the power of GIS is illustrative. In southern Florida in 1992, GIS technology and a public records request by the media played a significant role in uncovering a corrupt local government building inspection department. Its shady practices ultimately resulted in millions of dollars of unnecessary storm damage.
Soon after…[H]urricane [Andrew] struck, reporters at the Miami Herald newspaper started covering the massive recovery effort. Around the same time, owners whose homes had been battered and flattened began questioning how the damage could be so severe. After all, the conventional wisdom at the time held that South Florida had the toughest building codes of the country.
Subsequently, the Miami Herald reporters used GIS to analyze the hurricane’s path and levels of home destruction. By comparing the hurricane’s wind speed with the levels of destruction the Herald found some curious discrepancies. Some residential areas had more damage than predicted, while others had the expected level of damage from a storm with the high wind speeds seen in Hurricane Andrew. With GIS maps made by the Herald staff in hand, the team of reporters was able to uncover corrupt municipal and county building inspection programs which purposely overlooked shoddy residential construction–resulting in elevated levels of hurricane damage. “The Herald’s investigation of the slipshod construction and inadequate inspections help the newspaper win journalism’s highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize – and sparked interest in using GIS to analyze data for news stories.” From that story other journalists saw that GIS could be a powerful reporting tool.
With the enactment of Missouri Revised Statute § 67.1850 (“Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850”), the legislature placed the first significant barrier, since the passage of the Sunshine Laws between Missouri citizens and the public records that they ostensibly have a right to obtain. Part II of this paper describes GIS and how this technology does not alter the public nature of the records it encapsulates. Part III provides a legal analysis of how and why Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 departs from the time-honored principals codified by Missouri’s Sunshine Law, positing that these departures, if widely understood by citizens and the media, would be considered anti-democratic. Part IV illustrates that, by the passage of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850, local elected officials recognized that they had a potential new revenue stream, a monopoly on an increasingly important set of public records, and a new tool they might use to decrease transparency at the local government level, if they were already so inclined. Logically, many local governments have used the statute accordingly. Part V proposes a broad spectrum of possible solutions to the problems inherent in allowing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 to stand.
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