By John Celock
The Kansas House of Representatives defeated an amendment Monday that could have made emails sent from the private email accounts of government officials open public records.
The amendment offered by Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) comes after reports last week that state Budget Director Shawn Sullivan used his private email account to send copies of budget drafts to private email accounts for other officials as well as lobbyists. Sullivan has said he used the private accounts since the email was sent over the Christmas holidays when most officials were home. Sullivan said that was not trying to avoid the state’s open records law.
Ward offered the amendment during House debate on a routine public records bill. The amendment was defeated 30-86 in the GOP controlled House.
“I don’t think transparency in government is a minority idea,” Ward said. “It is was what most Kansans expect.”
Opponents of the amendment question why Ward was introducing it as a floor amendment rather than in the House Judiciary Committee, where the original bill was debated. Ward answered that the reports of Sullivan’s private emails for government business did not surface until late in the committee process. Ward also said he did not know if the amendment would have passed in committee, saying that floor amendments offered members of the House minority to change bills as well.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Barker (R-Abilene) questioned why Ward decided to offer the floor amendment rather than introduce a new bill covering private email accounts. Barker said that his committee “welcomes all bills” and noted that a full bill would allow the judiciary panel to hold hearings on the issue and examine the bill, with debate.
“If it’s such a good idea, let’s put it in a bill and debate it in committee where amendments are offered,” Barker said.
Barker noted that “when you are going to do changes of a substantial nature” it should be heard in committee. State Senate Democrats have indicated plans to introduce a bill on the issue.
Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) questioned the wording within Ward’s amendment, noting that Ward was proposing that “substantial” emails on public policy from private accounts should be disclosed. Schwab asked what would constitute “substantial” and noted that it was not clear in the amendment. Schwab argued that judicial precedent would decide what constituted such an email instead of the Legislature.
Ward argued that transparency should be the top issue being debated by lawmakers when considering his amendment.
“I know it’s a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. People should know the process in which we make decisions,” Ward said. “If we had my way we’d be televised. We should have transparency and audio recording of committees.”