It’s been a grueling winter. We’ve had record snowfalls in parts of Kansas, and cabin fever has taken its toll on all of us.
The time has come for a hearty dose of sunshine.
There could be no better time to be observing National Sunshine Week, a time for citizens and elected officials alike to recommit themselves to the ideals of open government.
National Sunshine Week is March 10 through 16. The week is a joint effort between the American Society of News Editors, the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press and the various associations that promote open government across the nation, including the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.
Why should Kansans care about this?
Because although public officials often talk a good line on transparency when running for office, when it comes time to walk the walk in Topeka or Washington, D.C., they hide behind a myriad of excuses for why secrecy is preferable.
Here are just a few of the excuses we hear almost every year at the Kansas Statehouse:
We can’t have frank discussions about the issues when the press is breathing down our necks.
We can’t record all committee votes because they will be used against us in the next election.
We can’t have a hearing on every bill filed or we’d be here forever.
We can’t get the best results legislatively unless we use procedures such as “gut and go” and bill bundling to break logjams.
We can’t afford the technology to video stream from every hearing room at the Capitol.
Do you detect a recurring theme here?
“Can’t” seems to be the stock answer to every attempt to open up the political process.
It would be far more productive to discover ways to instead say “yes we can.”
The 450 newspaper and broadcast station members of KPA and KAB try to do their part to make sure public bodies are following the law, but they could use your help. Citizens who take their participatory form of government seriously can provide effective oversight when they attend meetings, seek records or observe their public officials in action.
You may wonder how you can help.
Do your local public bodies give proper notice of their meetings, well in advance so the public can attend?
When they do meet, do they discuss policy issues in public or do they seem to have their minds made up when the meeting begins, as if they’ve ironed out all the wrinkles in advance and behind closed doors?
Do they abuse the closed session exceptions to the Kansas Open Meetings Act?
And does it ever appear the body has voted outside the public meeting room, which is illegal?
If you observe any of the above, contact your local newspaper and tell a staff member what you have observed. Or you might consider writing a letter to the editor. Those who like to work in secret prefer not to be called out in public for their transgressions.
KOMA and the Kansas Open Records Act require that meetings and records of public bodies be open to the public.
While some elected and appointed officials often carry out their duties lawfully, there are some who don’t believe they owe the public anything, that they can meet when they want, where they want, sometimes without telling their constituents about it at all. Others believe they can charge such exorbitant rates for access to public records that they make such access unaffordable for citizens and even most members of the press.
When you attend meetings, seek public records and question those in authority about how they are conducting themselves, you are doing your part to help keep government open, accessible and accountable.
“Sunshine” is a perfect description of how government should operate. It means that the public’s business is discussed thoroughly in public, with the public’s participation, and it means decisions are never made behind closed doors.
Please join us in making sure meetings and records remain open to the public and that our government officials not only understand the law, but follow it.
Doug Anstaett is the former executive director of the Kansas Press Association and serves on the board of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.