TOPEKA — Bipartisan support greeted a proposal to enhance the state’s open records law that would stop officials from using private emails to avoid disclosing their communications to the public.
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley both argued in favor of the legislation during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senate Bill 361 would apply the Kansas Open Records Act to private email accounts of state workers if the records involved would otherwise be open. The legislation comes a year after the Wichita Eagle first revealed members of Gov. Sam Brownback’s staff had used private email to discuss a budget proposal with lobbyists.
Last spring, Hensley pressed Schmidt for a legal opinion on whether the records could be withheld. Schmidt said the emails didn’t have to be disclosed, but he said he personally favored requiring disclosure.
At the hearing, both men stood side-by-side in support of the legislation.
“There are a variety of communication methods now that are very common now that were not common when KORA was written. And I don’t think as a matter of public policy that it’s appropriate to avoid the requirements of KORA by varying the means of communication for your record,” Schmidt said.
Hensley said the legislation is a compromise to address the issue, which he said was brought to his attention by news media.
“It’s imperative that we deal in an open way so our constituents have the opportunity to observe and participate in their government,” Hensley said.
The Kansas Judicial Council developed the legislation during the past few months. The proposal has the backing of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the Kansas Press Association.
Kent Cornish, president of KAB, said the legislation isn’t a “media” bill, but rather a “people’s” bill.
“There is no room in our government for public employees or officials to avoid open records laws by conducting their business on private devices. As mentioned in other testimony, technology has raced faster than laws, and we have the opportunity with this bill to play catch up,” Cornish said.
The Kansas Association of Counties also said it supports the measure. The organization’s general counsel, Melissa Wangemann, said the concept of open government shouldn’t depend on the location of the open record.
Lawmakers also heard testimony on Senate Bill 360, which would change the state’s open meetings law. Currently, public bodies must cite the subjects that will be discussed in a closed meeting and the justification for closing the meeting. The change would require disclosure of the particular subjects that will be discussed.
The Kansas Press Association said often the justification for the closure and the subjects to be discussed are almost identical.
“We support these changes because they require more specific information to be provided to the public and the news media,” KPA director Doug Anstaett said in his testimony.