Doug Anstaett
Kansas Press Association
Guest columnist
If I had a nickel for every time an elected official sang the praises of governmental transparency, I wouldn’t have to buy a lottery ticket.
That might be an exaggeration in the hyped-up atmosphere of a $1.5 billion PowerBall jackpot, but it’s not so far-fetched in the scheme of things in Topeka.
One of the Top 5 no-brainers in the “How to Get Elected” pamphlet for politicians must surely be: “Say You’re for Transparency.”
Even if you’re not.
Or even if you don’t exactly know what that means.
“Transparency” has become one of the most used, and abused, words in America today.
I mean, who in their right mind would be against it?
It’s like motherhood and apple pie.
But when the chips are down and when information the public needs might hurt someone’s re-election chances or not fit in with their narrative, all of a sudden we get all those excuses newspaper reporters and editors have heard far too many times.
“It’s a personnel matter.”
“Talking about that might blow the deal.”
“It’s an active law enforcement investigation.”
“It might embarrass innocent people.”
“It’s none of your business.”
We’ve heard them all.
The Kansas Legislature is back in town, which means we’ll be hearing a lot in the coming weeks about transparency.
Yet, it’s really not that complicated an issue.
In fact, the Kansas Press Association came up with a T-shirt idea a couple of years ago to explain how simple the Kansas Open Meetings Act is:
• Notify the public.
• Meet in public.
• Discuss in public.
• Vote in public.
So easy even a caveman could understand it. My apologies to cavemen.
So, as you observe your legislators in action in Topeka, watch how open they are as they discuss the public’s business.
Of course they’ll spin things to look the best for them. We probably all do that to some extent.
But are they forthcoming?
Do they provide the details necessary for members of the public to be informed on the issues?
Do they regurgitate unsubstantiated talking points, or do they make logical arguments in favor of their position?
Do they seek expertise from others when they are unsure on a particular subject?
Do they parrot the governor, the Speaker of the House, the president of the Senate or the minority leaders of the two chambers, or do they think for themselves?
If they do not, then it begs this question: Why do we have 125 House members and 40 members of the Senate if they don’t bring their own ideas to the table and make up their own minds?
This session has the potential to be as painful as the 2015 gathering.
Budget problems still loom and the Kansas Supreme Court more likely than not will rule on the school funding controversy while legislators are still in Topeka.
As far as “transparency issues” are concerned, your association is pursuing a number of topics ranging from private email accounts to probable cause affidavits to cost containment on public records requests to bodycam legislation.
Those are all “transparency issues.”
We’re going to see just how dedicated to open government our legislators really are. Keep your eyes wide open.
Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association.