Our view: Open government: It’s good for everyone
Editor's note: This opinion piece was written in observance of Sunshine Week, which underscores the importance of open government.
It's been a bad year so far for open government in Kansas. Too many Kansas legislators are using every excuse to dilute, delay and destroy commonsense initiatives to do the public's business in the sunshine. And too many Kansans don't understand that the open government movement isn't for the benefit of journalists and the media; it's for the benefit of citizens and our society.
This is a dangerous situation. Open government is essential to democracy. It's the only way you and I can know how good (or bad) a job our public officials are doing, from local schools boards all the way to Topeka.
Some sunshine issues:
- The Kansas House has sent to legislative purgatory a bill to open probable cause affidavits for arrests after they are served. Only in Kansas are these records presumed closed. Even the federal government, which has taken so much abuse for doing business under cover of darkness, opens such affidavits after arrests are made.
These documents tell (in a minimal way) why a person was arrested. But in Kansas, as in Cuba and other totalitarian states, these records may never be opened. There's no other way to put it: That's un-American. If a person is arrested, hauled off in the middle of the night and then grilled by police, the public should know why. And based on the wide experience of other states and the federal government, that basic public information would not jeopardize investigations, obstruct prosecutions or compromise trials.
- A bill to prevent public officials from circumventing the Kansas Open Meeting Act by participating in serial meetings never even got a hearing in the Senate. Boards and commissions shouldn't be allowed to meet privately in small groups that, when added together, dodge the law.
- Another attempt to provide audio recording of executive sessions for possible independent judicial review has been put to sleep. This is a spit in the eye to taxpayers. The powerful lobby against this modest effort is largely composed of the state associations representing cities, counties and school boards, who seem to find the democratic idea of open government to be a terrible inconvenience. These associations, of course, are funded with our tax money. Thus our local governments are using our money to work against our interests.
Now the better news. Though they are getting plenty of opposition, two sunshine issues are still alive this session.
One would require the education of public officials about Kansas open meetings and open records laws.
The other would make available to citizens the names of those who drive members of the public, even if employed by a private company. Since schools boards are spending tens of millions of dollars every year a private company (Durham School Services in Wichita and Topeka) to bus thousands of our children back and forth to school every day, that makes sense. It's public accountability for public spending. But, among others, Unified School District 259 in Wichita, the state's largest school district, one that spends about $18 million a year of tax money on busing, is lobbying hard against this accountability.
This is sad. Not only would all of these initiatives help citizens find their way in our democratic system, they would build trust in that system. Suspicion flourishes in the dark. Democracy requires sunshine.
An ironic note: This chilling of open government initiatives comes at a time when organizations and citizens around the country are preparing to celebrate Sunshine Week, March 12-18.
"This has been a precious American value since the beginning of the nation," said Ernestine Krehbiel, co-president of the Wichita Metro League of Women Voters. "But open government only works if citizens care enough to pay attention. Public apathy will defeat all efforts to bring more sunshine in all levels of government."
The open government movement is not a media scam designed to sell newspapers and boost ratings. It's not about partisan politics; indeed it may be the most non-partisan issue in Kansas, drawing passionate supporters across the political spectrum.
Open government is about you -- your right to know what your government is doing and why.
-- Randy Brown, senior fellow in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, is the executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.