Kansans of all political persuasions were stunned and saddened this week following the Star’s stories on the secrecy surrounding the state’s government.
Calmly, methodically, factually, the newspaper’s reporters provided irrefutable evidence that some state agencies put their own interests above the
The costs are enormous. Secrecy, the Star found, could cost lives. And money. And efficiency. And fairness. And hurts democracy.
To their credit, many state lawmakers in both parties have stepped forward to concede the problem. That suggests transparency and reform in Kansas will be critical goals next January, when lawmakers convene for the 2018 session.
There is a long list of things that can be done. Kansas can hide from the truth, or it can use this opportunity to make itself the national model for openness.
Some laws will have to be changed. New legislation may be needed. Rules and regulations must be re-written.
Together, we can call it the Kansas Transparency Initiative:
▪ The Legislature.
Lawmakers can and must make their processes and procedures more transparent. They should end the absurd practice of offering bills without individual sponsors.
So-called “gut and go” tactics must end. There is no reason, other than secrecy and political expediency, to remove and replace all language in an unrelated measure in order to cram through controversial bills, often without hearings or debate.
Committee votes should be taken and recorded. Hearings should be held on any measure moving from committee to the floor — the claim that a bill need not be openly discussed because it was heard a year earlier is preposterous.
Meeting notices should be clear. Cancellations should be reserved for the most extreme causes, and not used as a tool to discourage public participation.
The Legislature’s website is difficult to use and should be simplified. That goes double for campaign finance records, which are often an indecipherable mess.
▪ The Executive.
The revelations concerning the Department of Children and Families were particularly disturbing. No one should ever be asked to sign a gag order to discuss his or her case. Documents and notes should never be shredded by DCF, or any state agency or department.
We are sympathetic to privacy concerns surrounding children. But careful redaction can protect sensitive information while allowing affected families, and the public, to judge decision-making in state government.
The use of private emails for public business must come to an end. Secret economic development deals anger the public and should be avoided.
Kansans have an absolute right to know how tax credits are used, including the cost for each credit, and the recipient.
Asking KanCare caregivers to sign blank treatment plans is ridiculous and should be prohibited.
Firing public affairs spokesmen and spokeswomen for their candor hurts the state and must be stopped. Kansans are smart enough to hear the truth, not sugar-coated pablum that laughingly distorts reality.
▪ The Judiciary, and law enforcement.
Rules for body camera footage will have to be revisited so the public can review police behavior. We’re also concerned departments can hide the names of officers involved in shootings — an option rarely extended to civilians involved in similar incidents.
Judges and prosecutors should make public documents available quickly and easily, including charging affidavits. Leaving cases open indefinitely, and hiding information from the victims of crime and their families, only adds to the distrust of police and the courts.
▪ A state auditor.
But how to enforce these changes?
Laws and regulations alone won’t stop Kansas from hiding its work. The state needs an impartial enforcer, someone who can investigate claims of secrecy, obtain needed information, and make it public.
Kansas has a legislative post auditor, but not an elected state auditor like Missouri. We think that should change: In 2018, Kansans should vote on a constitutional amendment establishing a state auditor, with specific, broad powers to investigate government secrecy at every level.
Kansans who face delays in obtaining information, or who are asked to provide information improperly, or who face roadblocks in getting answers, could file a complaint with the auditor’s office at no cost.
The auditor, in turn, would be empowered to seek the information, review it, and make it public.
The auditor should be allowed to pursue obstinate agencies in court if necessary. He or she should have subpoena authority, a staff, and as much money as needed.
The Star has exposed a problem Kansans have known about, in pieces, for decades. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a Kansas issue, built over many years and ignored for political reasons, until now.
The Legislature must address secrecy this year — firmly, openly, aggressively. Promises aren’t enough.
And every candidate for office in 2018 should be asked about secrecy in the state, and be held to specific recommendations for improvement. “No comment” will not suffice.
The sun must shine in Kansas. It has been far too dark, for far too long.