New utility customer names not exempt from disclosure
MISSOURI–Names and addresses of a city’s new utility customers are nonexempt public records that must be made available for public inspection and copying, except when a customer requests that the information remain confidential, a state court of appeals in Springfield ruled in late September. The court also ruled that the trial court did not err in awarding attorney fees.
In October 1995, a Springfield newspaper, Daily Events, wrote to the city board of public utilities seeking access to records of new hookups.
Unsure about what records it was required to disclose, the city sought a declaratory judgment, asking the court to determine whether the customer records were public records and whether they were protected from disclosure.
The trial court ordered the city to give the newspaper access to “all its records of commercial and residential utility hookups.” The city appealed the ruling, arguing that the lower court’s order requiring disclosure of all records was too broad and that the records are “confidential information” protected from disclosure.
The appeals court held that Missouri’s Sunshine Law requires disclosure of the names and addresses of future commercial and residential hookups and that any expectation of privacy a customer may have under the federal constitution is protected by permitting the city to honor customers’ requests to keep their names and addresses confidential.
The court ruled that the provision of the Sunshine Law permitting the city to seek a declaratory judgment also requires that it pay the newspaper’s attorney fees. To hold otherwise, the court said, would “thwart the public policy underlying the open meetings and records law” because a public governmental body could “test” the determination of anyone making a records request by filing a lawsuit. The requester would then be put in the “dilemma of not defending his or her request in court or enduring the significant expense of doing so,” the court said. (Springfield v. Events Publishing Co.; Media Counsel: James Miller, Springfield)