October 22, 2014

Sunshine week highlights need for open government

Doug Anstaett
Guest Columnist
Most of us are fed up with the doldrums of winter, so why not celebrate the sunshine that comes with the advent of spring by also celebrating Sunshine Week.
What is Sunshine Week?
It’s an annual observance — this year’s it’s March 10 to 16 — that has as its goal promotion of a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Is the fact that Sunshine Week is set smack dab in the middle of the Kansas legislative session happenstance — or providence? Anyone who has observed the recent behavior of some public officials in our state could be excused for leaning toward the latter.
After all, we’ve had more than our share this session of blatant attempts to close the curtains at the Statehouse.
Legislators, who have more freedom than any other elected officials in Kansas, want even more.
It’s not enough that they can “legally” caucus their entire party delegation behind closed doors.
It’s not enough that they can meet in small groups out of the public’s view and discuss the public’s business — just so long as they assemble just one less than a majority of a committee’s membership in the same room.
It’s not enough that they can be wined and dined by lobbyists, who can bend their ears for hours, most of the time without any public scrutiny.
No, they want more.
They’ve floated bills that would allow them to get together during “chance” meetings at social events and discuss the public’s business.
Under one bill, if they were invited to a wedding and took advantage of the situation to discuss business, they wouldn’t be breaking the Kansas Open Meetings Act. After all, the “central purpose” of the get-together is to celebrate with the bride and groom.
Under another, KOMA would not be broken even if a majority of a public body discussed pending legislation behind closed doors, as long as their conversations didn’t rise to the level of deliberation.
That’s a far cry from what KOMA requires today.
In other words, they already have the goldmine, but they want to give the public the shaft.
The problem is, these bills would free up all public bodies to do the same — city commissions and councils, county commissions, school boards and all the rest who are covered by KOMA.
Is this any way to run a government?
Not if you’re interested in the sunshine illuminating your service as a public official.
If, however, you prefer to operate in the dark, it’s the perfect prescription … for disaster.
Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association.

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