Moving to Kansas after spending most of my career in North Dakota was a shock.
Not because of the ruralness of the state. North Dakota has that, too.
Not because of east/west tensions. North Dakota has that, too.
It was because of the most mind blowing, embarrassing open meeting and record laws I have ever seen in my life. North Dakota does not have that. I honestly wondered if I was still living in the United States and said so during the first Kansas Press Association conference I attended. They gave me a rueful smile and encouraged me to keep saying it. People here do not get that this is abnormal, I was told.
This week is Sunshine Week, a week to celebrate government transparency. But if I was living on top of the blazing sun in North Dakota, I’m surely on Pluto now – the sun just a concept far, far away.
As an example, as a reporter in Fargo, we received multiple emails a day from police and fire reporting out every single call they answered. In addition, we were fed a steady diet of news releases for what they proactively knew the public would most want to know. Most weeks, I heard more often from Fargo Police than my own mother.
Public information officers at all government levels were at the ready for our calls every single time, every single day. If someone was going on vacation, we were immediately told in advance who to call instead. If we wanted to talk to someone in the department or needed a record, they made it happen in no time.
Government and education officials knew full well to keep journalists informed constantly so as to not face the wrath of not only the newspaper industry but the attorney general – a longtime advocate for journalists who is not afraid to tell a local government that a breach of transparency better not happen again.
In North Dakota, journalists report on who applies for taxpayer-funded positions to ensure a fair and transparent process before a finalist for a significant position is chosen. In North Dakota, if there’s a government meeting, we’re told about it immediately and sent the meeting packet without having to “ask” to be told. In North Dakota, if we journalists want to read the university president’s emails, you bet your booties we’re going to get them.
No taxpayer-funded agency should be able to get away with denying access to basic government operations and records. Recent scandals surrounding state government agencies should be a warning sign to Kansas residents that all is not well just “trusting” that things are fine.
Yet every legislative session, the journalism industry has to fight against Secret Kansas trying to forget the sun even exists. And every few months, my jaw drops when the state’s press attorney tells me, sorry, that information you want is not open in Kansas.
It’s not normal. It should not be normal. It’s time to let the sun shine in.
Teri Finneman is publisher of The Eudora Times and an associate professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.