Archive for Saturday, March 20, 2004

Attorney: Records legislation a map to ‘corruption’

March 20, 2004


— A bill intended to improve Kansans' access to information about their government emerged from a Senate committee Friday with an amendment one critic called "a roadmap to corruption."

The amendment was tacked on a day after the chief counsel for the Kansas Board of Regents raised questions about a House-passed bill aimed at strengthening the Kansas Open Records Act, the state law intended to ensure public business is done in public.

The regents took no official position on the bill, but Mary Prewitt, their general counsel, on Thursday told the Senate Judiciary Committee that officials on university campuses were concerned.

In particular, it appears Kansas University is concerned about keeping private the compensation of Athletic Director Lew Perkins, said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Assn.

In January, the Journal-World and 6News filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court asking a judge to force the university to disclose public records relating to Perkins' salary and benefits. The lawsuit was filed only after the university repeatedly denied requests for the public records.

"This assault did not come from the Kansas Board of Regents," Anstaett said of the amendment Friday, "it came from the regents' institutions and particularly the University of Kansas and Kansas State University."

The provision has to do with records of government employees' compensation, which now are required to be open to the public under state law.

As approved by the House last month on a 123-2 vote, the bill would have clarified a provision requiring employment contracts and records related to an employee's entire compensation to be open.

The House version had the support of the press association, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, local governments, school boards and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline.

Legislators in 2000 amended the Kansas Open Records Act to eliminate all exemptions unless lawmakers decided by July 2005 to preserve them. The law generally requires government records to be kept open to the public but contains 46 exemptions. A bill passed last month tightens some of those exemptions.For example, current law lets government agencies close documents that discuss an individual's qualifications for a job. The bill says such records must remain open if they relate to someone who has been appointed to fill a vacancy in an elective office. The Open Records Act also classifies government employees' salaries as public records. The bill expands that to cover all compensation and employment contracts.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill so an agency could close a record if it dealt with an employee's compensation from a private source.

Press association lobbyist Richard Gannon said Friday the Senate committee's version was so narrow it actually was a step backward from current law, making the measure unacceptable.

"We're going to have to shoot our own horse," Gannon said after the committee's meeting.

Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney who represents the press association and the Journal-World, said the committee's change, if enacted, could encourage government agencies to seek private sources for employees' pay simply to keep the information private.

"It's a roadmap for corruption," Merriam said in an interview. "It's a recipe book for getting people off the payroll. What if you wanted to hire a city manager and you got your chamber of commerce to pay him? ... And the Legislature appears willing to do it that way."

Committee Chairman John Vratil said the Open Records Act was meant to apply only to government agencies or agencies funded in part with public funds.

"If you expand the Open Records Act to include private agreements that do not involve public agencies or do not involve public funds, you've made a sea change in policy," said Vratil, a Leawood Republican.

Furthermore, Vratil said, universities could have trouble attracting faculty members if potential professors knew their private agreements would be open to public inspection.

But Sen. Ed Pugh said after the meeting that Vratil's argument "doesn't cut any bacon with me."

"I think everything ought to be open -- absolutely, bar none," said Pugh, R-Wamego. "If somebody's paying your professor, you ought to know who it is."

On a voice vote, the Judiciary Committee sent the records bill to the entire Senate for debate.

The Journal-World and 6News have been seeking a variety of documents -- including an employment contract -- that would put to rest speculation about the extent of compensation to Perkins.

The university disclosed Perkins received an annual base salary of $400,000 and fringe benefits including two automobiles, family memberships to two country clubs and two season tickets to men's basketball games.

It also said "contingent supplemental compensation is potentially available" under his contract.

That supplemental income has been said to boost Perkins' annual compensation to about $1 million.

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