Archive for Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Sebelius signs records bill

May 18, 2004

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a bill Monday to strengthen the state's Open Records Act, but a Kansas Press Assn. official said his group would push for other changes next year.

The changes take effect July 1. They clarify and tighten existing law on what government records can be kept confidential, as well as allow the awarding of attorneys' fees to people seeking records in some cases where an agency has denied access to those records in bad faith.

"The governor has always supported the Open Records Act," Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said during a brief interview.

The press association had described the bill's changes as "substantial," but Executive Director Doug Anstaett said the group had hoped for additional changes and would continue to pursue those issues.

Still, Anstaett said, "We're satisfied with what we accomplished this year."

Under the changes, the public will be able to see records of donations to public agencies that compensate a specific public employee. Such records are now closed if a donor requests anonymity.

Also, public access will be guaranteed to documents about the qualifications of anyone appointed to fill a vacancy in an elective office. Previously, those records could remain closed.

In addition, law enforcement agencies will have to explain why they are denying access to criminal investigation records, which can be closed under certain circumstances.

The provision on attorneys' fees is a response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last year that said parties could recover only the expenses they incurred before filing suit.

The decision stemmed from The Garden City Telegram's successful lawsuit against the state for access to safety ratings of railroad crossings. The newspaper spent $13,000 on the case but recovered only a few hundred dollars.

Most of the bill's contents arose from a compromise among the Kansas Press Assn., the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, local government officials, local school boards, teachers' groups and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's office.

But Anstaett noted the bill did not contain one agreed-upon provision ensuring public access to all records about a public employee's total compensation. Current law allows the release only of a public employees' names, job titles and salaries.

After the House approved the provision, attorneys for the state's three largest universities objected, saying state workers' privacy could be in jeopardy.

And some senators were wary because the Lawrence Journal-World and Lawrence cable television station 6News sued Kansas University earlier this year over its refusal to release records on athletic director Lew Perkins' compensation package.

Anstaett also said the press association would seek next year to narrow an existing section of the Open Records Act permitting government agencies to block access to documents if disclosure would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." He said the existing provision was too vague.

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