Roughly 140 Kansans gathered at Olathe City Hall Thursday night to hear from lawmakers, journalists and legal experts about ways to fight secrecy in state government.
The Kansas City Star hosted the town hall after last year’s series on transparency spurred calls for change from lawmakers from both parties and promises of reform from Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will likely take the reins of state government in the coming months.
“We knew the state was not exactly a model for transparency, but even we were surprised in how many ways secrecy had begun to permeate Kansas government,” Mike Fannin, The Star’s editor and vice president, told the crowd. “But if we were surprised, our readers were shocked. And mad.”
The town hall covered a range of topics that were covered in The Star’s series, including the state’s secrecy on deaths of children in the child welfare system, the difficulty in obtaining police body camera footage and the quirks of the state’s legislative process that allow lawmakers to refrain from putting their names on their bills.
“I’ll name one name,” said former Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, when asked what special interests had hampered transparency in the Legislature.
“It’s a one-word name: Leadership. It is in the interest of leadership to enhance their power to control legislation as much as they can… and a lot of these things that we see as offensive to legislative accountability are tools of leadership,” Rubin said.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican who will introduce legislation on Monday to list the requester of every bill, recounted that when she first joined the Legislature in 2013, more experienced lawmakers advised her to never put her name on a bill, to never to respond to a constituent email and to never use Twitter.
“If you know me, you’re laughing,” said Clayton, who tweets constantly throughout the legislative session, including how she votes on every amendment.
“Our rules explicitly state that you cannot tell anyone how another member of the legislature votes,” she added. “I can’t take a picture of the vote board and tweet it. I would face censure.”
Susan Jarsulic, a Shawnee resident who attended the forum, told Clayton and the other lawmakers on the panel that she was penalized for speaking out against problems with KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
Jarsulic’s daughter, who is enrolled in KanCare, has developmental disabilities. She said an administrative law judge cited her conversations with lawmakers when he ruled against her family when it fought changes to her daughter’s plan of care.
“I’m one of three people in this audience that I know of who are thinking of filing suit against the state of Kansas to protect my daughter,” said Jarsulic, who is appealing the decision.
Rubin said that Kansas puts too many burdens on citizens seeking information, noting that the state’s Open Records Act has five times as many exemptions as the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Bernie Rhodes, an attorney who represents The Star and other media outlets, recounted how the city of Merriam cited the state law’s exemption for personnel records when it refused to release video of the city’s former public works director stealing gasoline.
Rhodes also railed against how the state’s police body camera law gives police department carte blanche to decide when to release or withhold body camera footage. Rhodes noted the law was a product of legislative compromise in 2016.
“I don’t view that as much as a compromise,” Rhodes said. “To me, that’s essentially giving into the police department.
“If the only purpose of the body camera is for the police to have evidence to help them, then we have it ass-backwards. The police don’t work for them. They work for me… It’s our government.”
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, emphasized the need for greater transparency when children in the child welfare system die, comparing it to releasing information about a defective car seat.
“The goal is for children in Kansas to be safe. You’re only going to find out what happened… if you get all of the information gathered,” she said.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, noted that the new secretary for the Department for Children and Families, Gina Meier-Hummel, has expressed a desire to be more transparent.
But he said if the agency wants to help pass laws to foster that it needs to act quickly because of legislative deadlines for introducing bills.
“We have until the second week of February to get this stuff introduced. The clock is ticking,” he said.