July 20, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Cities, counties oppose Open Records cost reforms

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Representatives from Kansas local governments spoke in opposition to a measure to lower the costs they charge for fulfilling Open Records requests from media and citizens.

The Senate Transparency and Ethics Committee is considering SB 386, intended to reduce charges and increase transparency in local government.

Under current law, agencies can require advance payment based on the hourly wage of the employee assigned to conduct the search. Governments can even levy a charge to conduct a search to determine if a record exists. Audio-visual records are now only available if that material has appeared in a public forum.

The bill, a reform of the Kansas Open Records Act, seeks to lower the cost of searches by basing it on the lowest hourly wage of the employee qualified to conduct the research. It would make available all A/V material, prohibit charges to determine whether the requested material exists, and require that KORA fees be based on the lowest hourly rate of an employee who is qualified to do the research.

Several supporters of the bill mentioned the aftermath of the abrupt firings of the city manager, city clerk, and city attorney in Frontenac in 2019 as an example of the need for reform offered by the bill. The Sentinel’s Patrick Richardson was managing editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun when the story broke, and a record request was issued:

“Three days later the new city clerk — who had been fired by the city administrator for twice-failing a random drug test shortly before his own firing — responded telling us and KOAM TV, which had filed a substantially similar request, that they could not fill our request because they did not have a city attorney. Of course, under KORA, no attorney is required and the city clerk is the custodian of records.

“We, of course, reiterated this position to them, and then, some two weeks after the initial request we and KOAM were told the records would cost $3,500 — each.”

Jarring testimony was also offered by KAKE-TV, which received a bill for more than $40,000 in 2021 from the Department of Labor for documents in the station’s investigation of fraudulent unemployment claims.

Opponents of SB 386, such as Attorney Michael Koss of the City of Overland Park, testified the legislation is redundant and unnecessary.

“There are already standards for fees in the open records request in the Open Records Act. It can’t be above actual cost, and it can’t be unreasonable. That’s why the City of Frontenac was found to be in violation of KORA; that law already exists. So the idea that we need to change the law because the current law determined a violation has happened doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

“Also, there were some comments about there being no standards in government; you know, local officials can decide what records to turn over, how much to charge, again, not true. We’re obligated to turn over all records that don’t have a specific exemption. And we are again, tied to that actual cost of producing the record,  the actual staff time involved in producing the record.”

Eric Sartorius with the League of Kansas Municipalities, saw room to compromise in the legislation:

“While I say we’re here testifying as an opponent, we’ve had some really good conversations with Kansas Press Association on this legislation. And I think there are areas where we can find places to meet up and match up. And I think there are places where language isn’t too far off. So, you know, cities that we work with… 625 cities… most of them, and many of them never have an open records request, you know, 113 of our cities are under 100, and population. And that’s usually one staff member. So it’s pretty unusual if there are requests there. So what we say we are wanting to work and resolve these.”

Emily Bradbury of the Kansas Press Association, which supports the bill, was pleased with what she heard:

“The hearing went well. The committee was receptive to SB 386 and, I believe, sees the need for its implementation. They have asked us to confer with the opponents to see if we can come to an agreement on language that works for both parties. I am cautiously optimistic.”

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