Walter Hermreck, Gardner, said taxpayers have a need to be informed.
However, he told the Kansas Senate’s Federal and State Affairs Committee last week that some provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act make many public records difficult for the average citizen to access.
He testified on March 13 in support of proposed legislation that would cap the amount of money public entities can charge for open records.
“As a citizen, we’re taxpayers,” he said. “We need a uniform standard. That’s the bottom line.”
Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, authored the bill, Senate Bill 10, which would cap what governing entities including school boards and city councils could charge for records. Under the proposal, the first hour of staff time required to find the record would be free. Copies would not exceed 25 cents per page. The bill also limits the amount that can be charged for additional staff time. Up to $50 can be charged for technical staff or attorney time, according to the legislation.
Sen. Rob Olsen, R-Olathe, said the records are available.
“I think it’s already more open,” he said.
Currently, there are few limits to what citizens can be charged for records, Rich Gannon, a lobbyist for the Kansas Press Association, told the committee in written testimony.
“A public record is, by state law, the property of the citizens of Kansas. 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,” Gannon said.
Hermreck, for example, told the committee that USD 231 required he pay $122 for records he says didn’t match what he requested. When he refused to pay on principle, the district banned him from requesting other records until he paid the fee.
Jan Jarman, Wichita, said she requested records after she learned her child would be sent to a different school than anticipated. The Maize School District charged her $1,000 for 300 pages. Several of those pages included duplicates of emails she had sent. Some of the information was available online, but she wasn’t directed there.
“As a citizen I can tell you the system is broken,” she said. “(The request) wasn’t outrageous. I’m not witch hunting.”
Tony Lauer, Shawnee, said the city told him one simple record he wanted would cost $2,200 so they could develop a search mechanism to find it. Lauer offered to write the technical search program himself, but was turned down. He was also once charged $170 for a single cell phone bill.
“I can’t afford the information I’m looking for,” he said.
Public officials and taxpayer-funded lobbyists for a variety of entities including Johnson County voiced strong opposition to the bill saying limited fees would cripple city, state and county offices.
“To remove the ability to collect more than 25 cents per copy, making it clear that no staff time was ever to be considered in calculating the final cost, we believe, is an unfunded mandate of no small expense,” Tom Krebs, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards told the committee.
Marilyn Nichols, Shawnee County Register of Deeds, said though some of the stories shared before the committee make her cringe, however, there’s no way her small office could fund such an open records law.
“Some registers of deeds only have one person. Some counties have two,” she said. “…I have no way to fund this mandate.”
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell and chairman of the committee, said he would delay consideration of the bill. It may be considered in the 2014 session.