Editorial: Open government

Creating a state-level unit to monitor open meetings and open records could vastly improve the state’s ability to enforce these important laws.

Spending about $160,000 a year to police compliance to the Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act would be a good investment for the state.

That is the estimated cost of creating a two-person unit within the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to handle complaints related to open meetings and open records. Legislation to create such a unit has been introduced in the Kansas House and has the support of the Kansas Association of Counties and the Kansas Press Association.

Enforcement of these important laws currently is spotty at best. If individuals or media organizations suspect that a government entity has violated the open meetings or open records law, they can take their complaint to a local district or county attorney or file a lawsuit. If the complaining party files a lawsuit, it also must be willing to pay the legal costs associated with that action. That makes it less likely that an individual — or many smaller media outlets — will pursue such an action. Complaints can be taken to a county or district attorney, but those officials may not have the time to investigate the complaint — or may be hesitant to pursue action against county officials who control their budgets.

Complaints also can be taken directly to the Kansas attorney general, but the office currently doesn’t have enough resources to handle those complaints properly. Attorney General staff members may or may not be able to give those issues the proper attention amid their other caseload.

The Kansas Attorney General’s office is the best place to handle open records and open meetings complaints. The Attorney General staff members would be the experts on the provision of the laws and how they apply to various government entities. Attorney General officials also are in a position to enforce the two acts in a consistent manner across the state without concern for conflicts of interest or retribution from local officials.

Another important aspect of the bill, as the KPA president noted during committee testimony last week, is that it elevates the importance the state places on open government. Social media have created numerous new ways to evade open meetings laws at the same time that traditional news media are finding it difficult to dedicate the same resources and staff time to monitoring open meetings compliance and fighting to maintain reasonable access to open records.

Too often, local officials plead ignorance when faced with open meetings or open records complaints. Creating a new enforcement entity for those laws at the state level should help motivate those officials to educate themselves and monitor their own compliance — or face the appropriate penalties.