Politics & Government

Kansas bill closing private e-mail loophole moving forward

Kansas lawmakers are moving forward with legislation to close a loophole in the state’s open-records act that allows public officials to avoid scrutiny by using private e-mail accounts.

Negotiators from the House and Senate agreed Wednesday to combine multiple bills on public records law, setting up a possible vote in the House as early as Thursday.

SB 22 would amend the Kansas Open Records Act so that private e-mails by public officials would be open records if the subject matter related to their official duties. E-mails of a personal nature would remain private.

“We want good people to serve in office and commit to public service without feeling that open-records requests could impact their private business and personal lives,” Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said in an interview earlier this week. “At the same time, we don’t want people using personal e-mail accounts to transact public business outside open-records laws. I think it’s an excellent approach to dealing with both issues.

“It would be a shame not to get it done this year,” he added.

The private e-mail loophole gained attention last year when The Eagle reported that Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used a private e-mail address to send a draft of the governor’s budget proposal to two lobbyists with ties to Brownback several weeks before it was presented to lawmakers.

The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate earlier in the session but has yet to be voted on in the House.

“We are very pleased. We’re hoping that the governor signs it ... assuming that the Legislature passes it,” said Rich Gannon, the lobbyist for the Kansas Press Association.

Bills combined

The negotiators combined the private e-mail legislation with two other bills dealing with public records.

One extends exemptions from the Kansas Open Records Act for five years.

The other defines police body camera videos as criminal investigation records. Municipalities currently differ on how they treat the records.

That would prevent their disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act to the public as a whole. They would be available to anyone who is the subject of a recording. A person’s attorney and, in the case of minors, his or her parent or guardian would also have access to the recording.

The press association is not thrilled about the body camera bill being paired with the e-mail bill, Gannon said, but added that this version of the body camera bill is preferable to an earlier more restrictive version.

“We do not love it. We can live with it,” Gannon said. “It is far better than what was originally introduced, which was basically to seal it forever and ever.”

Court nominations

The negotiators were not as quick to form consensus on another bill dealing with public disclosure.

SB 197 would make the Supreme Court Nominating Commission subject to the Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act. It is not subject to those acts now but has held open interviews of Kansas Supreme Court applicants in the past.

The nine-member commission selects nominees to submit to the governor when there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. King called passing this bill just as important to transparency as the private e-mail bill.

He said the bill also includes a requirement that Brownback disclose the names of applicants for vacancies on the Kansas Court of Appeals. Brownback has repeatedly refused to do that when asked by The Eagle and other media outlets.

However, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, objected to provisions in the bill that would change the way the commission is selected.

Four of the commission’s members are selected by the governor and five are elected by the state’s practicing attorneys.

Under current law, the chief justice of the Supreme Court picks someone to fill one of the five attorney spots if it becomes vacant prior to the election. The bill would have the governor make that choice instead.

The bill also would require the clerk of the Kansas Supreme Court to submit a list of eligible attorneys to the Kansas secretary of state’s office before the election for commission spots so that each attorney could be assigned a unique voter identification number. Carmichael contended that involving the secretary of state’s office would politicize and complicate the process.

The negotiators will return to the issue on Thursday.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3