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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sunshine in Kansas: The State of Play

A nice column from our man in Kansas, Randy Brown:

Those of you interested in preserving our democratic society need to celebrate Sunshine Week, March 16-22.

Actually, "celebrate" is far too strong a word. "Observe with passion" is a better way to look at it, because there's not much to celebrate. The cause of open government is going backward -- in Kansas and across most of the United States.

The Sunflower State, along with 37 other states, recently flunked the sunshine test by the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group that digs into problems and solutions about transparency and accountability in government. The study examined citizens' access to public information.

The ugly results show that "citizens have little or no recourse when faced with unlawful denial of access to their state's FOI laws," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

That should be no surprise in Kansas, where there has been a recent epidemic of open government problems involving local governments and issues large and small. A few examples:

The Kansas Attorney General's Office has ruled that the Thomas County Commission twice violated the state's open meetings act by discussing a salary plan behind closed doors. In early February, Assistant Attorney General Michael Smith told commissioners they must accept a settlement agreement or face prosecution.

Lawrence city commissioners were ordered in January to take a two-hour refresher course on compliance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Commissioners got into trouble when they went into a closed-door executive session to consider economic development incentives for a pharmaceutical company. After the violation became public, the company scuttled its plans to expand in Lawrence.

The Topeka City Council ignited a firestorm with its "serial meeting" end run around the open meetings law to buy a backup police helicopter. Essentially, five members of the council met one-on-one in secret phone calls. The $850,000 copter purchase passed 5-4. Now Shawnee County District Attorney Robert Hecht has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the purchase. He says the most important issue is the council's secret run around the law.

There's plenty more bad news, but why? Why are so many local governments finding it so hard to operate meetings legally? Why is it often so difficult for members of the public to get access to public records?

More here.

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