Note: This article is part of a weeklong series, running March 14 to March 20, honoring Sunshine Week.
Obtaining the information
What information and records were requested? E-mails from City Manager David Corliss to the Lawrence City Commission during four months in 2009: January, April, July and October.
Which agency or department received the request? City Manager’s office.
How quickly did it respond to the request? In two business days the city provided a written response detailing the process it would use to respond to the request. Sixteen business days later the city provided the records, after searching through their e-mail archive system.
How much did the records cost? There was no charge to the Journal-World.
Was any information from the request denied? The city declined to release 13 e-mails, citing various exceptions in the state’s open records law.
Is this information currently accessible to the public? The information is not available online, and must be requested.
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Have an open records idea?
Is there an open record you would like to see? E-mail your ideas to Shaun Hittle.
When organizers in March 2009 asked the City Commission to make Lawrence the first community in the state to pass anti-discrimination laws for transgendered people, it caught some City Hall observers by surprise.
But it didn’t catch city commissioners by surprise — at least, if they read their e-mail, it didn’t. That’s because more than a month earlier, City Manager David Corliss had sent all five commissioners an e-mail from the Kansas University organization Queers and Allies inquiring about such a change.
That’s the type of heads-up city commissioners — but not the general public — often receive via e-mail.
“There are times that commissioners need to know where something is at, or where an issue stands, so I do send all of them an e-mail about it,” Corliss said.
The Queers and Allies e-mail also highlighted another City Hall communication technique: the Digital Library. In his e-mail to commissioners, Corliss directed a staff member to post the Queers and Allies letter to the city’s Digital Library.
When asked by the Journal-World, Corliss confirmed that for about six years the city has been operating an archive of electronic information — officials call it the Digital Library — that is only accessible to city commissioners and selected city staff members.
The library includes a variety of information, Corliss said. It includes invitations commissioners have received to events, correspondence from citizens, neighborhood newsletters, and legal documents that have been filed in court on behalf of the city, among other items.
Information about the city’s e-mail practices and its Digital Library were gleaned from a Kansas Open Records request made by the Journal-World as part of national Sunshine Week activities.
As part of the request, the Journal-World asked for copies of all e-mails that Corliss sent to the commission as a whole during a four-month period in 2009.
The city provided the Journal-World with 35 e-mails, and withheld an additional 13, citing in most cases a broad exception in the state’s open records law that allows drafts, research notes and memoranda of a preliminary nature to be exempt from disclosure.
Of the 35 e-mail records provided, most were innocuous. Some were messages that provided commissioners an advance look at a memo or document that then would show up on the commission’s agenda within a few days or sometimes a week or two.
Other times the messages would discuss complaints the city has received about certain issues. For example, complaints in January 2009 about the condition of the skatepark created a couple of e-mails, and a resident’s concern about a newly installed sidewalk dining area for Noodles & Co. downtown also created an e-mail.
A few e-mails, however, did contain information or documents that likely would not be readily accessible to the public. For example, in January 2009, Corliss forwarded a report by Police Chief Ron Olin detailing minor in possession activity in the city. The report was done at the request of a commissioner, but Corliss said he did not publicly post the report because it did not end up being a matter the commission sought new policy on.
Of the 13 e-mails that were withheld, Corliss said the subjects of those varied. He said some involved information from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce about businesses that are looking at Lawrence as a potential site. Others involved information regarding the city’s negotiations to purchase the former Farmland Industries site. And some involved updates on personnel matters.
Nothing in the state’s open records law prohibits a city manager from e-mailing the entire commission information. The state’s open meetings law does prohibit a majority of commissioners from sharing opinions or having online deliberations about a subject. There was no evidence any of that activity occurred, and several of Corliss’ e-mails reminded commissioners to respond only to Corliss and not to copy the response to other commissioners.
The frequency of the e-mails varied greatly. During one 10-day period in January 2009, Corliss sent the commission 26 e-mails. During the entire month of April he sent 16, but then sent none in July and just three in October. Corliss said he would rather talk in person with a commissioner than e-mail all of them at once, but the efficiency sometimes wins out.
Former City Commissioner Boog Highberger — who also is an expert on open records law as an attorney for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — said he did not recall any abuses of the e-mail system during his six years in office.
“I think, generally, the process was used OK,” Highberger said.
But Highberger said he does think the public could benefit from having access to the city’s Digital Library. He said the library — which has new information added to it on a near weekly basis — would be an easy way for interested residents to see more detailed information about city issues.
“I have no idea why most of it would be restricted,” Highberger said. “There would be a few things that would have to be segregated out, but not a lot.”
Corliss said opening the library up to the public, however, could be problematic on several levels. He said the library does contain notes from the city’s attorneys regarding pending lawsuits that would be inappropriate to release. He also said he posts articles from various publications that could create copyright issues if they were made available to the general public for free.
But he also said he has some concerns about allowing the public to see all correspondence that the commission receives.
“A lot of citizens, I think, would not feel free to write to the commission if they thought that it was going on the World Wide Web,” Corliss said.