The transparency conversation must continue. Change in Topeka is crucial. The secrecy in Kansas government must end.
Those were among the many responses The Star received after its November series revealing that Kansas has one of the darkest state governments in the nation. Its secrecy permeates nearly every aspect of service, the investigation found.
That’s why The Star is holding a town hall at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, in Olathe City Hall, 100 E. Santa Fe St. Several lawmakers and an attorney who specializes in Kansas open records laws will make up the panel.
It’s the public’s opportunity to have a say. If you would like to attend, please fill out the form here.
As the new legislative session gets underway in Topeka on Monday, many lawmakers from across the state have said changes are needed to make Kansas more open.
The series exposed countless examples of government secrecy, from records kept under wraps in police shootings to shredding notes within the Department for Children and Families to asking KanCare recipients to sign blank forms for plans of care.
The series also revealed that in the past decade, the Legislature has often relied on tactics that obscure the authors of bills and hinder the public’s ability to track legislation. More than 90 percent of the laws passed during that time came from anonymous authors, and lawmakers’ votes in legislative committees are seldom recorded.
“Failure to record votes to be openly viewed by the voting citizens is not the American way,” wrote a Wichita reader. “I would consider it illegal. … Please go forward with your investigation as we really need your help.”
The goal of the town hall is to continue the dialogue and discuss changes that could bring openness to the Sunflower State.
“If you’re opaque, you can’t have a meaningful democracy,” said Doug Bonney of the ACLU of Kansas. “It’s going to take a public campaign and uproar. … I think Kansas is so shut down and in the dark, realistically, just incremental change is what can hope for.”
Panel members are Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican; Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican; Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat; former Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican; and attorney Bernie Rhodes, who represents The Star and other media outlets on open records issues.
Transparency allows for critical checks and balances, Baumgardner said.
“I know I sound like this broken record, but we can’t help folks if we don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “We are stronger when we do hold people accountable. ... However messy a problem, when you have all the elements on the table, that’s when you can start to solve it.”
Ousley said he looks forward to hearing what the public thinks during the town hall meeting.
“I think keeping the conversation going is absolutely crucial,” said Ousley, who sits on the current child welfare task force.
Calls for fixing the state’s culture of secrecy are coming from legislators across the political spectrum. Some candidates for governor want to bring back the state auditor position that was eliminated in the 1970s. Others want to see changes in child welfare so patterns in cases where a child dies aren’t repeated.
Some also said they’d be open to considering changes to the state’s open records and open meetings acts to improve disclosure.
Kansas is one of four states that do not require public notice of all regular public meetings, according to a Star analysis of the 50 states’ open meetings laws. The Kansas Open Meetings Act only requires notice be given to individuals who have requested it. And Kansas and Arkansas are the only two states that do not require minutes to be kept of a public meeting.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will become the state’s leader if Gov. Sam Brownback is confirmed as an ambassador in the Trump administration, also has pledged to address the problem, saying transparency “is absolutely critical to increase Kansans’ confidence in government.” He has not, however, offered specifics on how he would do that.
In the weeks since the series, advocates and readers have cried out for change.
Don McGuire, a candidate for Kansas Senate in a Johnson County district, posted about secrecy on his Facebook page.
“Good government is linked to openness and transparency,” McGuire wrote. “It is time to strive for more openness in Kansas, with the aim of more effective governance. Thanks to the Kansas City Star for running this series of articles.”
A Kansas City reader said it was tough to read about the secrecy throughout government. But it’s essential, she said.
“It is important that we understand and have our eyes opened to the truths of government in our region.”