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Kansas Open Records Act amended for the better

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    News Media Update         KANSAS         Freedom of Information    

Kansas Open Records Act amended for the better

  • Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a bill that allows public disclosure of records previously kept confidential under Kansas’ Open Records Act.

May 25, 2004 — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a bill last week that will make it more difficult for public officials to withhold information under the state’s Open Records Act.

When the amendments go into effect July 1, the public will be able to obtain records of donations to public agencies “if the donation is intended for or restricted to providing” payment or personal benefits “to a named public officer or employee,” according to the new law. Currently, those records are confidential if the donor requests anonymity.

Those who successfully sue against the wrongful denial of public records can now also recover attorney’s fees.

The Kansas Press Association lobbied for the new law, even though it still lacks some of the key provisions the association sought, according to Doug Anstaett, it’s executive director.

“We are pleased that we got some improvements, but it definitely wasn’t sweeping,” he said.

The amendments, signed May 17, further require government agencies to release documents relating to the “character and qualifications” of any person appointed to fill a vacancy in an elected position. Those records are currently not open.

Also under the new law, requesters denied access to records regarding criminal investigations or prosecutions, which can be kept closed under certain circumstances, can request a written explanation of the denial.

The provision requiring agencies that deny access in bad faith to pay “costs and a reasonable sum as an attorney’s fee for services rendered” is in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling last year. The court held in Telegram Publishing Co. v Kansas Department of Transportation that parties could only recover expenses incurred before filing suit. The case was brought after The Garden City Telegram successfully sued the state for access to safety ratings of railroad crossings, and recovered only a few hundred dollars of the $13,000 it spent on litigation.

Anstaett said the bill did not include a highly sought after provision for access to all records regarding a public employee’s total compensation. The law currently permits only the release of a public employee’s name, job title and salary.

That provision passed the House, but was stricken from the bill in the Senate. Attorneys for the state’s three largest public universities argued that workers’ privacy could be put in jeopardy.

Anstaett said privacy concerns blocked changes to another exemption that prevents the release of records containing “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” He described it as the “catch-all” exemption.

“There is no real definition of what is a personal record,” Anstaett said. “What we really want is for the exemption to be specific.”

AV


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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