Transparency vital for good government

Openness protects the public interest

By The Mercury

It might not have seemed like it the last few days, but this is Sunshine Week. It is the annual recognition of the importance of casting light on the workings of government and the people elected or hired to serve the public interest.

The week is a collaboration of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Among other things, this week celebrates and serves as a reminder of the right of all American citizens to know what their elected officials are doing on their behalf.

This year, one in which the Trump administration has all but declared the news media Public Enemy No. 1, it’s worth remembering that government transparency — at the federal, state and local levels — is essential to the functioning of our democracy. That’s why such laws as the Freedom of Information Act exist and why states have Open Meetings Acts and Open Records Acts, though they vary from state to state.

Citizens should be wary of individuals or agencies that want to withhold information that the public has a right to know. Often, when public officials try to hide something from the public, it’s because they have something to hide.

At the federal level, President Trump’s efforts to discredit the news media stem not from their flaws, though they certainly exist, but from his refusal to be held accountable. Does anyone believe he’s withholding his tax records from public scrutiny as a matter of principle?

But there is more to open government than a president’s tax records. On one level it’s about seemingly mundane things such as the transparency of open meetings and access to public records.

Unfortunately, Kansas legislators seem poised to take a step backward on this front. They’ve advanced a proposal that would create an unnecessary and potentially harmful exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act. It involves records kept by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training; among the protected documents would be the records of officers who are fired or who have had complaints filed against them.

Legislators who support the measure say, with some justification, that the exemption is needed to protect officers, especially those who have been unfairly accused of wrongdoing. That, however, leaves unanswered the question of who protects the public’s right to know as much about their local officers as might be useful.

The news isn’t entirely negative. In recognition of the reality that simple access to public records isn’t always enough — that the cost of acquiring records is sometimes beyond citizens’ reach — Kansas legislators are considering a bill that would set reasonable and standard fees for people who seek access to public records. That’s a step forward.

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