By Erin Mathews

The Salina Journal

Salina Journal Editor and Publisher M. Olaf Frandsen said Tuesday the newspaper has retained counsel and is evaluating the next step to be taken after the communications director for the governor's office refused again late Monday to publicly release the applications or even the names of candidates seeking the two newly created positions on the Saline County Commission.

Eileen Hawley, press secretary for Gov. Sam Brownback, has refused one verbal and two written requests from the Journal for information about the candidates. She cited a provision of the Kansas Open Records Act stating that public agencies are not required to disclose "personnel records, performance ratings or individually identifiable records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment ... ."

"Yes, they are applicants for employment -- as public officials who are responsible for setting tax rates, for spending taxpayer money, who have ultimate authority over funds that are entrusted to them by the taxpayers of Saline County," Frandsen responded. "It is a laughably absurd argument that those applications need to be secret."

Frandsen said the newspaper will "continue to fight for what I believe to be public record because the residents of Saline County have an absolute right to know who all 13 candidates are for two open county commission seats."

Might be more than 13

Frandsen said it is possible there are more than 13 candidates. When Hawley told a Journal reporter 13 people had filed, there were still several hours remaining before the filing deadline. She has not responded since to phone calls from reporters seeking to confirm the number of candidates.

Frandsen congratulated the four candidates who have publicly stated their intention to seek the 4th or 5th District commission seats. Commission Chairman Randy Duncan, a Republican who currently represents the 1st District and was defeated in the Republican primary, has announced that he is seeking appointment to the 5th District seat.

Other contenders include Republican Duane Flaherty, who also lost the 1st District primary race in the primary to Monte Shadwick; and Democrat Stephanie Cool, who was defeated by Shadwick in November. Former commissioner Jerry Fowler, who was defeated by John Price in 2012, is also under consideration.

Candidate comes forward

During a county commission meeting Tuesday, another candidate was mentioned. Republican Gary Nelson, who lives on his family's farm in rural Falun, confirmed Tuesday night that he had been interviewed by the governor's staff. Nelson, a registered nurse, was a member of the health board when the health department was jointly operated by the city and county.

He currently serves on the professional advisory committee for the home health division of the Saline County Health Department. He said changes at the health department in recent years got him interested in becoming a part of local government.

"My great-grandfather homesteaded here 145 years ago, so it's time for me to do my part -- if they choose me," Nelson said.

It would be awesome

Frandsen encouraged other candidates to contact the Journal at 823-6363.

"It would be absolutely awesome if the other nine would give us a call and tell us who they are so we could let the public know, despite the veil of secrecy the governor seems to want to engage," Frandsen said. "If those other people would do that, I would fax a copy of the story to the governor's desk."

Frandsen said there is a compelling public interest in who is applying for what is normally a publicly elected position, and many people have expressed interest in knowing the names of those under consideration. He said people invested money in the campaign to add two seats to the commission, and depending on who gets appointed, the larger commission may cost the county more money in salaries.

"There's much more interest in this than I anticipated, and it's really kind of gratifying," Frandsen said.

Not a moot point

After voters approved expansion of the commission to five districts in the Nov. 4 election, commissioners John Price and Jim Gile created new commission districts. According to statute, the governor has 30 days from Nov. 25, when the new districts were certified, to appoint the new commissioners. The 4th District is roughly the southwest part of the county, while the 5th District is roughly northwest.

Brownback interviewed candidates three days this past week and is expected to announce the new commissioners within the next nine days.

"My thought is that he will hold those names in secret until the appointments are made," Frandsen said. "After he releases the names, the governor will probably think it's a moot point who the other applicants were. I am declaring it's anything but a moot point. I want to know who he picked from, and I don't care if it takes me six months to get a judgment in favor of releasing those names. I will continue to press for releasing those names for as long as it takes."

No secret government

Frandsen said he has the backing of Bruce Buchanan, president of Harris Enterprises, the newspaper group that owns the Journal, in pursuing the information.

"It's not like we're going to get some financial gain out of it," Frandsen said. "It's just that we are responsible for providing that information to our readers, and Bruce is willing to spend the money it takes to meet that obligation. There was not even a breath of hesitation. It's awesome."

Frandsen described the situation as "my engagement with a government that wants to be secret, and I disagree with that secrecy."

"Government in secret is no government at all," he said.

(c)2014 The Salina Journal