Archive for Sunday, March 13, 2005

Lawmakers working to improve open records laws

March 13, 2005


— After years of closing public records, state lawmakers appear ready to let in at least a ray of sunshine.

"In Kansas, there are more records public than there were a year ago," said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Assn.

"This is a fight that goes on year after year," he said.

This week is National Sunshine Week to emphasize the importance of public access to government information.

Currently before the Legislature are several proposals that would make it easier for citizens to access government information.

"We will make some good changes that will open up government," said state Rep. Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, chair of the House committee that has been working on several amendments to the Kansas Open Records Act.

It's a slow process. More than 40 exceptions have been added to the Open Records Act since it was established in 1984, and hundreds more provisions exist throughout state law that keep records secret.

New measures

One bill under consideration would require full disclosure of any public employee's total compensation. The Senate has already approved the measure, and it is before the House on the noncontroversial consent calendar.

The measure arose from a lawsuit filed by the media against Kansas University to get disclosure of athletic director Lew Perkins' compensation package.

Vickrey expects this bill to sail through the House. "When the issue is right, it's pretty easy to bring it forward," he said.

Two other proposals, however, appear in danger -- or at least will be the focus of more work next year.

One is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to create any new laws to close public meetings or records.

Vickrey said the measure, which would need a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to get on the ballot, requires further study.

"I would love to be able to pass that this year, but when you attempt to place something in the Constitution, it's important not to make any mistakes," he said.

Another measure would establish a public integrity office in the Kansas attorney general's office that would prosecute violations of open records and open meetings laws.

Democrats who voiced support of this measure have recently questioned it after they accused Atty. Gen. Phill Kline of trying to skirt the Kansas Open Meetings Law when he held closed briefings with conservative members of the State Board of Education. Kline, who has been a proponent of greater disclosure laws, has denied he did anything wrong in having those meetings.

Business records

Another bill in negotiations originally would have required private companies that derive more than half their funds from public agencies to fall under public disclosure laws.

But many business groups have protested this bill and now the measure would apply to only non-profit agencies.

"Our members do not want to share their business practices," Bob Totten, public affairs director for the Kansas Contractors Assn., said.

Totten and other business representatives argue that when businesses contract with a public, governmental entity, that portion of their business is open to the public, such as how much is spent to build a road.

But, he said, the public didn't have a right to know a private business' trade secrets.

State Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe, said the purpose of the bill was to ensure the public has access to the how the tax dollars are spent.

"The reason for this is not to embarrass anyone, but we do owe the public an explanation for what we do with tax dollars," she said.

That bill will probably be worked on this week by the full Senate Elections and Local Government.

Push needed

Despite the activity, some observers say more action is needed.

John Altevogt, a conservative activist from Wyandotte County, has been an active supporter of open records and open meetings.

When the 2005 session started there seemed to be a lot of momentum to change the laws, he said.

But it has slowed down, he said. "It's like Bill Self said about Jayhawk basketball: it's not how you start the game, it's how you finish the game.

"There are major, major flaws in Kansas' open records law, and without a major push from editors and publishers," nothing will happen, he said.

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