A state agency made a mistake but broke no laws when it didn’t release Lake of the Ozarks water quality data for weeks, according to an investigation released Thursday.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said Missouri Department of Natural Resources employees did not violate the state Sunshine Law when they failed to release data that showed dangerously high levels of E. coli, a bacteria, earlier this summer.
That’s because the requests for the data during June could not be “reasonably interpreted” by DNR officials as Sunshine Law requests.
A reporter and a member of the public failed to make clear that their requests were based on the Missouri open records law. Instead, they asked DNR officials only when the data would be released.
Open records advocates and environmentalist were quick to criticize the report Thursday.
“It raises the question of whether you can violate the Sunshine law at all,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“We are getting a little too technical when we are splitting hairs about whether something in a request says ‘Sunshine request,’” Davis said. “It’s not like it needs a magic sticker on top of it.”
Ken Midkiff, chairman of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign who filed the open records complaint with the attorney general’s office, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the conclusions of the report.
“It now appears that the AG’s Office conducted the investigation in a shabby manner and in a partisan snowjob fashion,” Midkiff said in a press release.
Koster said it was former DNR deputy director Joe Bindbeutel’s decision not to release the data. But he pointed out that Bindbeutel had served the government well for 15 years.
“The E. coli report should have been releasedas was the historic practice of the department,” Koster wrote. “The failure to do so has undermined the public’s trust. The protection of the public health must always be the uppermost concern of decision makers in state government.”
In Koster’s probe, however, investigators may not have received all media and public requests for data from DNR. A DNR e-mail obtained by The Kansas City Star shows that the agency understood it had received numerous requests for Lake of the Ozark test results.
According to the email by a DNR employee:
“In a nutshell, I have had email inquires from four reporters since May 26 and phone calls from those four plus a couple othersfor information, interviews or data.”
In an interview Thursday, Koster said he was unaware of that e-mail and some others obtained by The Star. He said he would look into the matter.
Koster added that he has reserved the right to consider more information if more documents come to light during a Senate environmental committee investigation into the delayed E. coli report.
Since May, E. coli test results in June and July show bacteria levels have fallen back to normal.
The report made two recommendations:
•Because DNR has 40 people who are designated as custodians of the records, Koster suggested that number be reduced to one.
•DNR should consider placing instructions to make records requests prominently on their website so that the public can clearly voice a request.
DNR director Mark Templeton said Thursday he took the recommendations seriously.