Kansas legislators mull provisions to open-records law

KANSAS — Spurred by a court decision ordering the University of Kansas to reveal salary information about Athletic Director Lew Perkins, two Kansas legislators introduced legislation in January that would require compensation agreements of all public employees to be made public.

The proposed “Lew Perkins Provision,” introduced on Jan. 27, was one of a series of changes suggested to amend the Kansas Open Records Act. There was no opposition in the legislature February 3 when the bill was debated.

Other proposals include a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote by the legislature to create an exemption to the open meetings law and adding an office of public integrity in the attorney general’s office to oversee how county and district attorneys use and dispose of public records.

The Lawrence Journal-World, the Kansas Press Association and The Associated Press filed suit against the University of Kansas and its sports division in January 2004, after the university refused to release Perkins’ employment and retention payment agreements. The Douglas County District Court ordered the documents be released to the media in September 2004.

Because the University of Kansas is a public school and Perkins’ salary was paid for with public funds, his contract information should be available to the public, the district court ruled.

Legislation for the proposed bill was introduced last year before the Perkins case matured, but the decision in the case has made the legislation more relevant, said Mike Meriam, attorney for The Associated Press and the Kansas Press Association.

“[The legislation] already was a hot issue, but everyone knew the Perkins case was in the works, so no one was surprised the legislation came back to this,” Meriam said. “The legislature was waiting on the Perkins decision.”

Although this legislation did not pass when it was first introduced, Meriam said he feels relatively confident that it will pass this time.

“The provision passed in the House almost unanimously, but the Senate blocked it,” he said. “One senator in charge of the committee had a philosophical problem with it, so he proposed his own language, which stalled the decision.”

Robert Hemenway, University of Kansas chancellor, said the university chose not to release Perkins’ contract because it received an advisory letter from the Kansas attorney general in 1993 stating that employment contracts and contingent compensation contracts are not subject to release under the Kansas Open Records Act.

“That is the principle that the university has followed and has been trying to protect, because we felt it was appropriate,” Hemenway said.

Perkins wanted to release his contract, Hemenway said, but the university asked him not to “because we felt the principle was important–private officials should have some right to privacy.”

Meriam and his legal team disagree, and hope the Kansas legislature amends the law.

“The particular amendment has to do with using tax money to pay public employees and we believe the public should be able to see use of its own money to compensate people,” Meriam said.

A date for the legislature to begin debating the bill, proposed by Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, has not been set, according to the attorney general’s office.

–By Elisabeth Salemme

Read previous coverage:

  • Kan. university releases athletic director’s employment records News Flash 9/29/2004
  • Lawsuit against Kan. university seeks access to athletic director’s contract News Flash, 2/9/2004