Archive for Thursday, February 3, 2005

It’s all about keeping government open

February 3, 2005

The Kansas Press Association announced this past week a package of legislative proposals designed to guarantee the right of all Kansans to a government that operates in the sunshine.

The centerpiece of the 2005 agenda is the creation of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing Kansans the right to know what their government is doing, how it is doing it and why.

KPA is working closely with Attorney General Phill Kline and a bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders to send the constitutional amendment to voters. In addition, the coalition is working to establish an office of public integrity in Kline's department to investigate open meetings and open records violations and to collect data on complaints from around the state.

Why a constitutional amendment?

Sadly, it's because two decades after the passage of the Kansas Open Records Act and Kansas Open Meetings acts, confusion still persists in what records and meetings must be open to the public.

A constitutional amendment will elevate the importance of open government to a new level, motivating public officials to work harder to meet the requirements of the law and encouraging citizens to exercise their rights to participate as equal partners in their government.

And it will include a provision that no new exceptions to open meetings or records could be instituted unless a two-thirds "super majority" of legislators from both the Kansas House and Senate approved such a change.

Keep this in mind: this constitutional amendment does not give special rights to the press. To the contrary, every citizen in Kansas has the same standing as any member of the press when seeking access to public records or entry to public meetings.

The Office of Public Integrity will smooth out inconsistencies in the application of the law because staff at the attorney general's office will handle inquiries. And since the office also will collect data on complaints, we'll have a better idea of what kinds of records and meetings seem to cause the most confusion for public officials.

In addition to the constitutional amendment and office of public integrity, KPA also proposes three other changes:

¢ An amendment to the personnel records exemption in light of a 2004 court decision in Lawrence Journal-World v. University of Kansas. In that case, the court found that employment and compensation agreements with KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins were public records.

A change has been proposed to codify in law what the court determined last year.

¢ A change to define what constitutes a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" to mean "revealing information that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and is not of legitimate concern to the public."

Now, record custodians in the various jurisdictions around Kansas apply their own set of interpretations to the law, thus making its application arbitrary and inconsistent. Exception 30 has become the "catchall" reason used for denying a record's release.

¢ An addition to the definition of "public agency" to include those entities receiving more than 50 percent of their annual expenditures from taxes unless they already file a detailed audit or accounting to the granting agency describing how their public funds were spent.

The proliferation of agencies and institutions providing privately what were formerly public services raises the question of how the public can determine whether its money is being spent wisely.

We urge passage of the package of proposals.

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