What is Sunshine Week?
It’s a week-long annual observance — ending today — with the goal of promoting dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Is Sunshine Week’s placement (smack dab in the middle of the Kansas legislative session) happenstance — or providence? Anyone who has observed the recent behavior of some public officials in our state could be excused for leaning toward the latter.
After all, we’ve had more than our share this session of blatant attempts to close the curtains at the Statehouse.
Legislators, who have more freedom than any other elected officials in Kansas, want even more.
It’s not enough that they can “legally” caucus their entire party delegation behind closed doors.
It’s not enough that they can meet in small groups out of the public’s view and discuss the public’s business — just so long as they assemble just one less than a majority of a committee’s membership in the same room.
No, they want more.
They’ve floated bills that would allow them to get together during “chance” meetings at social events and discuss the public’s business.
Under one bill, if they were invited to a wedding and took advantage of the situation to discuss business, they wouldn’t be breaking the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA). After all, the “central purpose” of the get-together is to celebrate with the bride and groom.
Under another, KOMA would not be broken even if a majority of a public body discussed pending legislation behind closed doors, as long as their conversations didn’t rise to the level of deliberation.
That’s a far cry from what KOMA requires today.
In other words, they already have the goldmine, but they want to give the public the shaft.
The problem is, legislation now being considered by lawmakers would free up all public bodies to do the same — city commissions and councils, county commissions, school boards and all the rest who are covered by KOMA.
And why does openness (or lack thereof) matter?
Locally, Ottawa’s school superintendent, Dean Katt, recently resigned, though a settlement agreement ensured no one from the school board nor the superintendent or his family members could talk about what prompted the resignation. The school board members also have displayed a pattern of not publicly discussing whatever potential problems were behind Katt’s departure during the board’s open meetings. Similarly, two Wellsville school principals, Sheldon Pokorney and Mitch Lubin, also recently resigned with no public explanation.
The Ottawa Herald has made a dozen requests to Franklin County, Franklin County District Court, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office since September attempting to obtain details about the KBI investigation of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the subsequent arrest of and ouster proceedings against Sheriff Jeffry Curry. Franklin County District Court, however, sealed many vital records associated with the cases with no reason given.
Is this any way to run a government?
Not if you’re interested in the sunshine illuminating your service as a public official.
If, however, you prefer to operate in the dark, it’s the perfect prescription ... for disaster.
— Doug Anstaett,
Kansas Press Association,
Herald editor and publisher