Here’s another outstanding investigative report by Paul Soutar of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. I have experienced some of the same obstacles that Soutar has encountered. Last year Wichita school district board member Lynn Rogers told me that record requests are a burden. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart’s attitude was similarly hostile towards legitimate citizen requests for records. Indications are that new board president Barb Fuller and new superintendent John Allison have a better attitude towards records requests, and I hope that time proves this to be the case.
The spirit is willing but the law is weak
Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy
Government transparency in Kansas is determined largely by open records and open meetings laws which state lofty goals but offer many loopholes and exemptions and few penalties for violations of the laws.
The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) starts off well. “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”
Similarly the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) begins, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”
The legislation that follows these broad and lofty goals, however, is full of exemptions and loopholes that circumvent the stated intent. Ignorance of the law and poor compliance by various government bodies also limit its effectiveness according to government transparency advocates.
A 2008 Better Government Association (BGA) report ranked Kansas’ open records law 18th in the nation. A 2007 study by BGA and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas an F and ranked the state 25th out of 50. A 2002 study by BGA and Investigative Reporters and Editors gave Kansas a D.
Citizens who believe KORA or KOMA law has been violated can file a complaint with the local county attorney, district court or the state’s attorney general. Michael Smith, a Kansas assistant attorney general responsible for issues relating to KORA and KOMA, says complaints about KORA and KOMA compliance are handled locally out of practicality. He says with more than 4,000 government units in Kansas his office would be stretched way too thin.
Smith stressed the importance of government transparency and awareness of the law during KORA/KOMA training held in Dodge, Olathe, Topeka and Wichita in June. A total of 332 people attended the training. According to registration data received from Smith’s office, 255 were affiliated with government, 46 were with the media and only 14 said they were unaffiliated citizens; another 17 did not list any affiliation.
From January 2007 to June 2008 there were 62 complaints filed at the county level according to reports submitted to the state attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office received 78 complaints during that time, including some referred from the county.
In most cases no violation was found. Some violations were resolved by delivery of the requested material. In a few cases the offending government employee or elected official was required to attend KORA or KOMA training. None of the violations covered by documents obtained from the attorney general’s office resulted in the $500 fine that is permitted by state law.
There are some common issues leading to problems with KORA. Chief among them is ignorance of the law.
The law allows an agency to require a written request but not on a specific form and only as a way to ensure good communication. The requester can only be required to provide their name and a description of the information being requested and provide proof of identification. It is not permitted to ask for the person’s employer or a reason for the request. Governments can require written certification that the requester will not use names and addresses obtained to solicit sales or services but only when someone is requesting names or addresses.
Many times government employees or elected officials are unfamiliar with the law and their first reaction is to look for reasons to deny access or information. It can be complicated because there are 48 exemptions to KORA in the statute and more than 300 elsewhere in other Kansas laws according to Smith. Most exemptions deal with personal privacy issues and release of some personal information can result in a lawsuit against the government.
During KORA/KOMA training Smith said record custodians must be familiar with records and know which portions of a record cannot be released. “If you’re a record custodian you better know if any of those records are closed.”
Another common complaint is excessive charges for providing information. KORA allows agencies to charge requesters only for the actual cost of making copies, including staff time to gather, redact and copy the records.
Smith says the only place the law addresses fee disputes is with state agencies. In those cases the department of administration has final and binding say. There’s nothing like that for local government, so disputes over fees at the local level must go to the local county or district attorney.
Paul Driver, CEO of ATG Sports in Andover, filed an open records request with the Wichita School District seeking information regarding an April 2009 synthetic turf contract awarded to a Texas company for $371,000 more than ATG’s bid. According to Driver the district said it would cost him $800 to fulfill his request. Driver offered to bring his own copier to cut costs. “At that point, the school district said we would need to bring our own power source to make the copies.” Eventually a deal was reached for Kansas Blue Print to make the copies for $350.
The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy requested a copy of a budget report presented to the Wichita Board of Education for their fiscal year ended June 30, 2009. Flint Hills was informed that there would be a $50 charge for 2.5 hours of staff time to make an electronic copy of the report and that the money would have to be paid before work commenced.
Upon delivery of the check, the report was burned to a CD in less than 15 minutes. Allowing $5 for the cost of the CD the employee’s time was effectively charged at $180 per hour. When asked to explain what work was actually done to warrant the charges the employee said he would not answer without a written request for review, which Flint Hills has filed.
Material provided to Wichita Board of Education members at their public meetings is available on the district’s web site a few days preceding the meeting and is taken down the day of the meeting. Former board president Lynn Rogers said the short availability may be because of space considerations on district Internet servers. The district web site does contain marketing newsletters from 2006.
When asked about the incidents involving Flint Hills and ATG Sports, Wichita School Superintendent John Allison said after less than one month in the job he was unfamiliar with the specific incidents or the district’s policy and how procedure is determined. “My intent would be to meet the requirements of the open records law and do that on a timely and equitable manner for everybody that requests.”
Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell used KORA to try to extract information from the Kansas State Department of Education about claimed achievement test improvement as a justification for more taxpayer money. Chappell also asked for information to explain a large discrepancy between state and national student achievement test scores.
Chappell made the request to Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Alexa Posny in a letter dated June 9. He asked for, “any KSDE research report or independent contractor research report provided to the KSDE which supports your claims.”
Chappell says responses to his request from KSDE and its lawyers did not provide what he was looking for and believes their response may indicate that no such report exists. KORA does stipulate that only existing documents are covered and agencies are not required to generate reports, explain or answer questions.
It’s also noteworthy that an elected member of the state’s school board had to resort to an open records request to get answers from KSDE, part of the education system he was elected to help oversee.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer says government should be open and everything possible made accessible at little cost to the public. But she’s concerned that the law doesn’t apply equally to all levels of government. “I think local government elected officers and appointees are treated in a different manner from some state officials.”
Of particular concern is recent legislation prohibiting serial meetings. A serial meeting covers “… a series of interactive communications of less than a majority of a governing body that collectively involve a majority of the body and share a common topic concerning affairs of the body and are intended to reach an agreement.” Meetings in person, over the Internet, phone or via e-mail are included.
Welshimer said some open meetings requirements, such as a prohibition on serial meetings, have a disproportionate effect on local government and has the opposite effect of what the law was intended to do. “Tight regulations on county commissioners make it extremely difficult to carry out policy and reach decisions.” She says most of that work is done behind closed doors by county managers who work up an issue and create the agenda before giving commission members a short briefing preceding the vote.
“We can’t talk to each other so we can’t discuss anything. So I don’t know what the reasoning is for my colleague to vote one way or another,” Welshimer said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes that’s a totally new subject and we haven’t been able to talk to each other to see what each other knows about it.”
When asked about opportunities to ask questions in open meetings Welshimer said commissioners, like most elected officials, are reluctant to appear uninformed in public.
State legislators can order research from the Legislative Research Department. That research is not open to the public unless released by the legislator.
Welshimer, a former state representative, wants to know why state legislators aren’t held to the same standards as local elected officials. “The legislature has serial meetings constantly. They go along and count votes.” She says this allows legislators to research a topic, write a proposal, gather sufficient support for passage and spring it on the legislature. She says city and county managers have similar opportunities. “Every group in town can talk with the county or city manager about some item and then the manager can spring it on the commission. So where in this process do we have openness?”
Welshimer says anything the legislature does should apply to them and believes the state’s open meeting law should be rewritten.