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Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

House approves revisions in open records law

May 2, 2004

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— Legislation strengthening the Kansas Open Records Act and allowing attorneys' fees in some cases where government agencies denied records in bad faith won unanimous House approval on Saturday.

The bill, which needed Senate passage as well, reflected recommendations by media groups, the Attorney General's Office and governmental bodies whose ideas were sought by a legislative panel studying exemptions in the law.

All existing exemptions to the Open Records Act expire in July 2005, unless the Legislature re-enacts them.

The legislation removes several exemptions for records that are specifically closed under other state statutes. It also clarifies some exemptions and closes others.

For example, current law allows public agencies to close documents about a person's qualifications for a job. Under the bill, such records must remain open if they relate to someone appointed to fill a vacancy in an elective office.

The bill also makes donations for the personal benefit of a public official or employee an open record. Current law allows for closing the record of a donation to a public agency if anonymity of the donor is a condition of the contribution.

Another section of the bill allows a party to receive attorneys' fees when a court determines that a government agency withheld public records in bad faith and without a reasonable basis in fact or law.

That language was in response to a 2003 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said attorneys' fees could be awarded only for activities prior to the filing of a lawsuit.

In that case, the Garden City Telegram won a lawsuit against the Kansas Department of Transportation, which had denied the paper access to safety rankings of railroad crossings.

The Supreme Court said KDOT had denied the records in bad faith and without basis on fact or law, but said the newspaper could recoup only those attorneys' fees that were incurred prior to filing the suit. That meant The Telegram could receive only a few hundred dollars, not the roughly $13,000 it had spent to pursue the lawsuit.

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