Archive for Friday, January 28, 2005

A.G., press team up to ensure openness

Amendment would guarantee public access

January 28, 2005


— State officials and media representatives Thursday joined forces to launch a proposed constitutional amendment and laws to ensure better access to public records and meetings.

"We must make government more open to our citizens," Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said.

Kline was joined by Republican and Democratic legislators and leaders of the Kansas Press Assn. to unveil the proposals.

The supporters said the changes were needed because there were too many loopholes in current laws that keep secret actions that should be disclosed to the public.

The package includes:

  • A proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee public access to government meetings and records and require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for any new laws to close meetings or records. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and a majority of voters in a statewide vote. Sponsors said they weren't sure what election date they would try to get for the measure.
  • Establishment of a public integrity office that would prosecute violations of laws governing public disclosure of records and public meetings. The attorney general's office already investigates allegations of open government violations, but this proposed law would codify those practices and also require counties to report annually on the open government complaints and the dispositions of those complaints.
  • A requirement that private companies that derive more than half their funds from public agencies be subject to public disclosure laws.

  • A definition of an exemption against disclosure for invasion of privacy, which Kline said has been abused by some government agencies to hide records that they simply don't want the public to see.
  • A definition clarifying that the public has a right to know the compensation of public employees. This arose from the lengthy legal battle by the Lawrence Journal-World and other news organizations to obtain the salary package of Kansas University Athletic Director Lew Perkins.

The Kansas Press Assn., with 240 member newspapers, said the constitutional amendment and increased enforcement through a public integrity office were crucial to maintaining an open society because many news organizations could not afford the expense of filing lawsuits to force agencies to disclose information.

"Our concern is that we're essentially headed for a system of censorship by default," Doug Anstaett, KPA executive director, said. "If it becomes too expensive for newspapers and television stations to litigate these breaches of the public trust, the public's right to know could be in jeopardy."

The supporters also pointed out that the open government provisions would apply for all Kansans, not just the media.

Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, and Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, attended the news conference to show their support.

Holland is the ranking Democrat on the House committee that will consider the proposals.

"This is thoroughly welcome," Holland said. "I have always felt that the best form of government is the one that reveals as much information as possible."

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