Editorials

Why hide in the shadows, Kansas? State government is shrouded in secrecy

Kansas must have more sunlight.

That’s the inescapable conclusion its citizens will reach this week, as an investigation by The Star is published.

The stories reveal a concerted and disturbing effort by officials at all levels of Kansas government to keep the public’s business secret.

The Legislature. The executive branch and state agencies. Police departments. Courtrooms. City halls and county commissions. From Tonganoxie to Topeka and beyond, The Star has uncovered a culture that seeks to hide critical facts from the very people the government is meant to serve.

Top to bottom, Kansas government may be one of the most secretive in the nation. The public should be deeply concerned.

▪ Children have suffered horrific abuse and have even died while state agencies obscure their roles in investigating these cases. That leaves child care advocates and relatives unable to judge how well children are protected.

▪ Documents and evidence related to police shootings are sometimes hidden. Police investigations are left open for decades, allowing authorities to bar citizens — and crime victims — from knowing the details of criminal inquiries.

▪ Officials bypass public email accounts to communicate privately, a practice that shields their policy decisions from open-records scrutiny.

▪ State departments “slow-walk” open records requests or withhold documents clearly in the public domain. Some ask citizens and reporters to explain a reason for seeking documents, an inquiry not required by state law.

▪ Open meetings are not always publicized. Minutes and votes are recorded haphazardly.

▪ Economic development initiatives are hidden from residents until the last minute. Tax credits are handed out secretly, at a time when the state is scrambling for cash.

▪ State policy discourages candor and honesty from executive-branch employees. A worker who speaks out risks losing his or her job.

▪ Even the branch of government that should be the most transparent — the Kansas Legislature — hides its work. The vast majority of bills are offered anonymously, leaving voters unable to attach names to policy.

Lawmakers don’t always record committee votes, a shocking and easily corrected omission. Non-controversial language is routinely stripped from pending bills and replaced with important policy measures — a process called “gut-and-go.”

Taken together, the evidence shows Kansans face enormous challenges in understanding decisions made in their names.

Why?

Often, it’s simply an effort to ward off scrutiny or criticism. You’ll find that in most organizations, of course, public and private.

But the systemic secrecy in Kansas reveals something far more dangerous: the government’s belief that the public is an adversary to be resisted.

This is deeply offensive and is at odds with democracy and the state’s Constitution. “All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority,” the Kansas Bill of Rights says.

Many public officials in Kansas fail to understand that concept, our investigation shows. They consider members of the public as supplicants entitled only to as much information as the government wishes to divulge.

Some of this can be easily remedied. There’s no reason Kansas lawmakers should be allowed to offer bills anonymously. All votes, even in committee, should be recorded — and made available to citizens online.

Other changes will require a new culture in Kansas.

We understand and endorse the need for privacy in some parts of government, particularly agencies involved in investigatory work. Criminal witnesses and evidence need protection. Courts should not prematurely release information that poses a threat to innocent residents.

Children must also be shielded from public exposure.

But we don’t have secret police in Kansas, or secret courts. Justice must be reached in the open. And privacy can never be a shield to protect workers whose own performance is embarrassing or substandard.

This week, we’ll watch closely to see how Kansas government responds to these revelations. Then we’ll recommend possible solutions that can be embedded in state laws and regulations, or at the local level.

We also hope the stories will convince public employees of good will to resist being forced into the shadows. They’re our neighbors. They have a stake in transparent government, too.

The clouds have covered Kansas for too long. This week, they should break, and the sun should start shining in.

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