Public officials like to talk about open government. It’s much harder to act accordingly, which makes this Sunshine Week (March 16-22) an opportunity to do more than raise awareness.
The issue hit home with last week’s news that the Wichita City Council’s airport-naming committee reported its own violation of the open-meetings law to Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett. City officials needn’t wait for his office’s decision to take steps to avoid more such violations by either standing or short-term city boards. Open meetings promote public trust in decision making.
Several worthy proposals remain in play at the Legislature:
• House Bill 2555 would align Kansas with other states in treating probable-cause affidavits as public records, newly shedding light on why arrest warrants are issued. The House passed the bill on a 113-10 vote, and it is scheduled to be the subject of another Senate hearing Wednesday. The measure has its critics, including Bennett and other prosecutors, but they could still argue that the records be sealed in some cases. Its provision allowing more limited openness relating to search warrants benefits from the compelling advocacy of a Johnson County couple who spent thousands of dollars before finding out why their home was wrongly targeted for a drug raid.
• Senate Bill 10, which has a House hearing Wednesday after passing the Senate 33-7, would prevent government agencies from charging exorbitant fees for fulfilling requests filed under the Kansas Open Records Act. A request would be filled for no charge if it took less than an hour of staff time and fewer than 25 pages of copying; for larger jobs, the bill sets per-page rates for copies and per-hour rates for clerical, information technology and attorney time.
• Some legislative committee hearings would be viewable live online as early as 2015 if lawmakers act on Senate Bill 413, which would create a two-year pilot program for streaming video. Such wide access to lawmaking should be a given in 2014, and after the $325 million Capitol renovation wired the building. Yet the cost ($177,920 the first year) is a deterrent for some lawmakers, as is the unjustifiable fear that being on camera will somehow make it harder to do the public’s business.
Kansans should call on lawmakers to finalize these bills.
At the federal level, the U.S. Senate should join the House – and the 21st century – by requiring electronic filing of campaign-finance reports by its candidates. As it is, taxpayers have to cover the $400,000 annual cost of putting paper filings online. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., supports updating the requirement but still files the old-fashioned way, as does Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. Change is overdue.
Meanwhile, President Obama is falling far short of his promise to have the most transparent administration in history, with an Associated Press analysis finding the White House became more secretive in 2013.
To be accountable to the public it serves, a government must be open and accessible. Elected officials should let the sun shine on their work.