Open government fuels democracy, but it too often morphs into secrecy

Open government has power. It fuels democracy. When citizens know what?s going on, they can make informed choices about their community and their country.

That sounds simple and non-controversial. But open government isn?t quite like apple pie and the flag. In concept, everybody says they love it. In practice, that love too often morphs into secrecy.

Take the Kansas Open Records Act. The preamble states firmly and clearly that the policy of the state of Kansas is that public records should be open to the public. Then the act lists more than 45 exemptions.

Some of those exemptions are legitimate, covering personnel, medical and juvenile records. Some of them are special interest nonsense, such as the exemption that keeps secret informa??tion about employees of private companies who salaries are paid with public money.

A quick example: You can get basic information, including names and salaries, of any public employees, such as schoolteachers, administrators and janitors. But you can?t even find out the names of those who drive school buses for Durham School Services, even though Durham receives tens of millions of tax dollars every year to transport tens of thousands of our children to and from school every day in Wichita, Topeka and around the state.

This is clearly a public safety issue?and a brutal violation of the spirit of the Open Records Act. It easily could be fixed by the legislature. But our lawmakers won?t touch it.

Sadder yet is the pervasive attitude that transparency in government is inconvenient and should be avoided if possible.

The Wichita school district?s long search for a new superintendent is a recent and disheartening example.

USD 259 is the largest school district in the state by a wide margin. It is the largest local taxing body in the state, as well. Yet the school board conducted its search for a leader in secret. Under pressure, it finally let the public briefly in on the process when only two candidates remained just days before the final selection was made.

This is not illegal, but it?s no way to build public trust in a public enterprise with a $600 million-plus annual budget and a $370 million bond issue on its plate.

Secrecy in public meetings is another transparency issue. Communities from around the state?from Lawrence and Topeka out to Thomas County?are running afoul of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The Lawrence City Council was even sent to open government school last year.

One problem here is the tendency of local governing bodies to pop into executive session at the slightest opportunity. But when discussions veer off of a specified subject or decisions are reached, as sometimes happens, state law is violated. And so is the public interest.

As well-meaning as most public officials are, another problem is ignorance or arrogance. State Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, says local officials frequently violate KOMA by discussing public business over lunch, in private meetings and in social settings. That?s convenient, after all.

Two key points here:

Open government is about citizen access to the workings of democracy, nothing more or less.

Public officials gain something priceless when they do business in the sunshine: credibility and public trust.

In short, open government is essential to a democratic society. Yes, that can make things a bit messy. But then, democracy can be a messy business.

One of my favorite patriots, Patrick Henry, once said something like this: Liberty is never secure when government does business in secret.

That?s as true now as it was more than 225 years ago.

Randy Brown, senior fellow at the Elliott School of Communi?ca??tion at Wichita State University, is executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, sunshinecoalition.com.