Politics & Government

March 15, 2013

Kansas open-records bill unlikely to advance, but debate continues

After recently filing an open-records request with the Maize school district, Jan Jarman received a bill for almost $1,000.

After recently filing an open-records request with the Maize school district, Jan Jarman received a bill for almost $1,000.

It was that kind of experience that led state Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, to craft a bill that would set a cap on the amount governmental agencies could charge in complying with Kansas Open Records Act requests.

“This has been a source of revenue for counties and cities,” LaTurner said Thursday, “and I don’t think it should be. We should cover the cost of staff time and making copies, but it shouldn’t be a source of revenue for people to find out information about their government.

“It should be as open as possible.”

Earlier this week, a number of city and county officials testified against the bill during a Senate’s federal and state affairs committee hearing. They cited the need to cover their costs.

But most of the concerns reflected the original draft of Senate Bill 10, which would have prohibited governmental agencies from charging for any staff time and set a fee of no more than 25 cents per copied page.

LaTurner amended the bill during a hearing so that it called for only the first hour of staff time being free and set a charge for additional time ranging between $20 and $50 an hour. But the charge for each copied page was amended to 10 cents.

“His amendments pretty much took the guts out of it,” said Dale Goter, who testified against the bill as lobbyist for the city of Wichita.

LaTurner said, “I was trying to strike a compromise that everybody can agree to.”

It’s not likely the bill will go much further for now.

“I doubt if we have time to work that bill this session,” said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, committee chairman. “We’re running out of time, and it’s pretty controversial. We may let it sit over the summer.”

Technically, legislative sessions last two years, so the committee could pick up the bill in 2014 without it needing to be reintroduced.

“It’s my belief some of this bill will become law,” LaTurner said.

As the open records act is written now, a governmental agency can establish a “reasonable” fee for copying and staff time in complying with requests. That leaves it open to interpretation by the agency.

For the Maize school district, that meant sending the $1,000 bill to Jarman. She had requested a wide range of records that involved how the district determined whether her daughter went to Maize High School or Maize South High School.

A vast majority of the request was for documents used by the school board and e-mails by top administrators in discussing the policy. She said she received more than 300 pages of documents but that many were repetitive.

One of the best ways to ensure “the government is working for its citizens, rather than against them, is to make its actions open and accessible,” Jarman said in written testimony provided for the hearing. “Eliminating the charge of staff time to provide public records sends a strong signal from this body to the State that we believe in the ability of citizens to serve as a check against intrusive government.”

She said she later received a $150 refund from the district.

Supporters of the bill said it’s important to define costs, in part because of inconsistency from one jurisdiction to another.

“The biggest complaint we’re getting now, especially regarding school districts, is they’re charging outrageous fees,” said Randy Brown, executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition. “Some of it has nothing to with stuff people ask for. Some of it they’re trying to bill people for how much it costs to have a lawyer to look at stuff, and there’s no reason to have a lawyer look at it.

“When we have a law that says ‘reasonable’ cost, it’s bound to cause trouble because it’s such a vague term. You can’t legislate common sense.”

Brown said in many cases governmental agencies simply need to direct people to where they can find the information online. Or the documents can be sent electronically without having to make copies, he added.

The city of Wichita charges 25 cents per copy for the first 10 pages and 10 cents for each additional page, according to the city’s website. Goter said that to dig out some old records, the city has to pay a courier $48 to retrieve them from the salt mines in Hutchinson.

The city turned down about 40 of the more than 200 open records requests it received last year, Goter said.

The biggest problem, he said, are requests that are “over the top.”

“If you have as your agenda that you just want to frustrate local government, this is a way you could virtually paralyze it,” he said, “because all we would do is answer KORA requests.”

He cited a request by Bob Weeks, a blogger for WichitaLiberty.org, who asked the city to provide more than 19,000 e-mails written by City Council member Jeff Longwell. Another request came from council candidate Clinton Coen, who asked for a year’s worth of e-mails written by incumbent James Clendenin.

Goter said those requests were denied because it would take more than 40 days for a city attorney to redact some information.

“You make these broad requests,” Weeks said, “and you get a big bill. If you make it narrow, you may not get what you want. You don’t always know what to specifically ask for.”

During a legal dispute between Airbus and Boeing, Goter said Airbus filed an open records request for the city to provide 10 years’ worth of industrial revenue bond information.

“We had to hire a temporary employee to meet that,” Goter said. “If you made all that free, you’re subsidizing Airbus, Boeing and whomever.”

In written testimony presented to the committee, Rich Gannon, governmental affairs director for the Kansas Press Association, said the amount charged to fulfill requests was inconsistent from one jurisdiction to another.

“A public record is, by state law, the property of the citizens of Kansas,” Gannon said. “However, in hearing horror stories from my members, you would conclude these records are the personal property of public agencies, available only after reporters and ordinary citizens jump through hoop after hoop to try to get what is rightfully theirs.”

LaTurner, a first-term senator, said no one approached him about writing the bill.

“I have constituents who have concerns,” he said. “It’s worth having the debate up here.”

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