By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
TOPEKA — City of Wichita lobbyist Dale Goter says everyone has a right to access public records in Kansas.
He just doesn’t think everyone should.
Goter was just one of 15 school, state and local government officials who testified Wednesday against SB 10, authored by Pittsburg Republican Sen. Jake LaTurner. The legislation would increase access to public documents by capping fees and require minutes to be kept of all public meetings.
While opponents claim restricting fees on open records requests would take up valuable staff time and blow budgets sky-high, LaTurner says reform is sorely needed.
Last year, Goter said the city of Wichita fielded 233 open records requests, of which 43 were denied. Goter noted that city staff will “bend over backwards” to fulfill requests, but they don’t have unlimited resources.
“At what point are we subsidizing too much?” Goter, the city’s government relations manager, said. “Not everybody can be an investigative reporter.”
Shawnee resident Tony Lauer was one of a handful of ordinary citizens to champion the bill to members of the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs.
Lauer has been bit by exorbitant fees on more than one occasion, most recently when he requested a single cellphone bill from the city of Shawnee. The cost for the three-page document: more than $170. The bulk of the cost, $150, was for staff to review and redact any sensitive information.
“The burden of access to public information is overwhelming,” Lauer said. “I can’t afford the information I’m trying to request.”
Jan Jarman of Maize voiced similar frustrations in her quest to retrieve public documents from Maize Unified School District 266. Jarman said she was charged more than $1,000 after she requested information that she later found out was readily available for free, either online or at the district’s office.
“There are binders at the school I could have been invited to look at. Instead, I had to pay for a person to go through every binder,” Jarman said. “It’s not democracy if they make it so expensive that you can’t afford to get the information you need.”
Shawnee County Register of Deeds Marilyn Nichols sympathized with Jarman and Lauer but argued some kind of staff time fee is necessary to prevent costs from skyrocketing out of control.
“I will have no way to actually fund this kind of mandate that’s coming down, therefore it is turned into a taxpayer problem,” Nichols said. “It’s going to be like a snowball happening to the taxpayers.”
In its original form, the bill completely eliminated staff time fees and capped allowable charges at 25 cents per page.
Amendments submitted by LaTurner would act as a compromise of sorts, dropping the per-page fee to 10 cents while establishing a uniform staff fee structure.
Under LaTurner’s proposal, the first hour of staff time would be free followed by a set hourly rate depending on the type of staff needed to fulfill the request. For example, while clerical work would be billed at $20 per hour, legal work would incur a fee of $50 per hour.
“I think that a vast amount of work requires a vast amount of time, and this allows (agencies) to charge for such a thing,” LaTurner said. “I’m trying to strike a balance the best I can to allow for average requests to go through and not allow for witch hunts to take place.”