Archive for Monday, March 22, 2004

Why hide?

If compensation packages for university employees are justified there seems to be no reason to alter the Kansas Open Records Act to keep those packages secret.

March 22, 2004


In general, most people favor open public records, They favor transparency -- whether it is at the local, state or national level -- in government operations.

Providing that transparency is the goal of the Kansas Open Records Act, but action taken by a Kansas Senate committee last week is aimed at partially pulling the shade on records that should remain open.

The act currently requires that records of government employees' compensation be open to the public. A bill approved by the Kansas House last month upheld that provision and confirmed that it applied to contracts and records related to an employee's entire compensation package. However, on Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a change in the Open Records Act that would allow government agencies to close the records on any employee compensation that comes from a private source.

This provision is of particular interest to some of the state's universities. Various spokespeople for Kansas University, Kansas State University or Wichita State University have quickly offered reasons why they think it's best to keep earnings secret. They say that private agreements don't involve public money and that universities could have trouble attracting faculty members if they knew their private compensation agreements would be open to public inspection.

Perhaps it isn't essential for the public to know the details of a faculty member's contract to do consulting work for a private company, but the public should know what private funds are being used to compensate an employee for performing his or her university job.

At a time when educators are spending considerable time trying to convince lawmakers and the public that university faculty members deserve substantial salary increases, it is interesting they don't want to open the book on full compensation packages for their employees.

Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney who represents the Kansas Press Assn. and other news organizations, including the Journal-World, called the Senate amendment a "roadmap to corruption" because it would prevent public scrutiny of all supplemental agreements not paid by public funds. Consider the possibility that a private source contributes money to "enhance" the salary of a university president, governor, city manager, county engineer or coach. What influence does that money buy for the contributor? Should the public not have access to that information?

The amendment approved by the Senate committee significantly narrows the required disclosure of compensation packages under the Open Records Act, taking specific aim at closing records on any agreements that don't involve public funds. That would include all third-party arrangements such as those made through athletic boosters and endorsements. Such arrangements may be entirely innocent and acceptable, but they should be open to the public to make sure that is the case.

The Journal-World and 6News currently have a lawsuit pending in Douglas County District Court seeking to force KU to disclose public records related to KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins' salary and benefits package, but our concern about the proposed new restrictions on open records are related to the public interest, not a narrow self-interest.

If a university person is making $500,000 or $1 million, why not be open about it? If he or she is worth that kind of money, why not just say so and defend the package rather than hiding it from the public? Why do anything you are ashamed of or don't want the public to know about?

The bottom line is that the state's universities shouldn't have anything to hide when it comes to who and how their employees are being paid. Seeking to manipulate the Kansas Open Records Act to provide a shield behind which to hide that information only increases the public's suspicions and hurts the universities' credibility.

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