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Recent Kansas editorials

By The Associated PressJune 4, 2019

The Kansas City Star, May 30

‘I’m appalled’: Ejecting reporters from Kansas Senate unconstitutional — and unnecessary

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle’s decision to remove reporters from the Senate chamber Wednesday was unconstitutional and unnecessary.

She should apologize — not to the reporters, necessarily, but to the people of Kansas, who were deprived of a complete and honest account of a dispute inside their state Capitol.

The confrontation unfolded as a group of protesters, angry about the lack of a vote on Medicaid expansion, shouted from a Senate gallery. Wagle called a recess, and officials swept in to remove members of the group.

But that wasn’t all. “Journalists were prevented from witnessing the arrests as police escorted reporters out of the chamber,” reported Jonathan Shorman, The Star’s Topeka correspondent. A Wagle staff member said journalists were giving the protesters “an audience.”

It was a thoughtless comment and a horrible decision.

“I’m appalled,” Gov. Laura Kelly, a former state senator, said Thursday. “The freedom of the press was denied, and I think that’s just unbecoming of Senate leadership.” She said she hoped Senate leaders would apologize.

State Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa, echoed Kelly’s concern. “Reporters absolutely had a right to be there and report what was going on,” she said. “That’s part of transparency.”

Wagle’s office tried to defend the decision Thursday, saying the Senate was in recess because of the disruption, and nothing was missed.

“We never denied the press access to government proceedings,” communications director Shannon Golden said in an email. “Removal was purely due to safety reasons, and any other account is an embellished story.”

Was anyone really in danger? Journalists — who cover wars, national disasters, violent protests and criminal behavior — are pretty good judges of what is threatening and what isn’t. They wanted to stay.

And government proceedings aren’t limited to votes and debates. Arrests are a government function. In fact, independent journalism is most necessary when government uses its enormous police power. Kansans have an absolute right, in their building, to know if force is used properly.

Wagle blocked journalists from doing their jobs, and all of Kansas is less informed as a result. That seems to be her real goal.

There was also a worrisome threat Wednesday to revoke press access for reporters who declined to vacate the chamber. That threat was repeated by Golden in her Thursday email.

“We should remind you that it is a privilege that reporters are provided access to the chamber floor with a Senate press credential while in session,” she wrote.

The Star and the Wichita Eagle sent a letter to Wagle Wednesday calling those implied threats unconstitutional. For a state government that constantly confronts claims of excessive secrecy, banning reporters from observing the work of its lawmakers and police is clearly unacceptable.

A coalition of open government advocates has filed a complaint with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, arguing that removing journalists violated the state and federal constitutions and the Kansas Open Records Act. The attorney general should give the incident his full, nonpartisan attention and ensure that Kansans’ rights are protected.

Order should be maintained during legislative sessions, from city councils and schools boards to the U.S. Congress. Government can’t function when everyone is shouting at everyone else. Reasonable rules to maintain decorum are needed.

But Wagle and her staff mishandled Wednesday’s disruption by attempting to prevent reporters and, by extension, Kansans from observing the protest. Self-government can’t function in secret, with voices suppressed, journalists denied access and the people left in the dark.

____

The Wichita Eagle, May 31

The search for WSU’s next president shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy ′ The Wichita Eagle

A committee appointed to help select Wichita State University’s next president says it wants public opinion and input.

But a four-question online survey and a single afternoon of pre-search forums — to be held on campus June 6, during summer break — are pathetic substitutes for a truly open, transparent search process.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which is responsible for overseeing state universities and colleges, decided last month that the search for WSU’s new president will be closed to the public.

That means none of the applicants’ names will be announced publicly. Finalists won’t answer questions in a public setting. Because search committees routinely hold interviews off-campus to evade journalists or others who might identify candidates, it’s possible that WSU’s next president could be appointed without ever having visited the university or met with faculty and students.

And that means the Board of Regents has opted to hire one of the state’s most powerful and highest-paid education leaders under a shroud of secrecy.

The board hired Wheless Partners, an Alabama-based headhunting firm, to recruit potential candidates. Steve Clark, a Wichita real estate developer and namesake of WSU’s new YMCA/Student Wellness Center, will chair a 20-member committee that will review applications, conduct interviews and forward finalists to the board.

The Regents opted for a closed search “in order to have a broader pool of candidates,” said board spokesman Matt Keith in an e-mail to The Eagle.

“Sitting presidents at other universities can be dissuaded from applying for an opening if their names will be disclosed during the process,” Keith said.

Really?

Closed searches for university presidents are a recent phenomenon in Kansas. Although an exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act allows public agencies to shield applicants’ names and resumes, the Regents previously have chosen to be more open.

In 2012, late WSU President John Bardo was one of five finalists — all current or recently retired university administrators — who toured the Wichita State campus, met with constituent groups and answered questions from the public during town-hall forums.

Now the Regents say they’ll miss out on good candidates unless they keep the process secret.

That’s a dubious argument in general, but an especially problematic way to search for a new leader at WSU, where several recent actions have bypassed public scrutiny. University officials barred reporters from a discussion about student fees, leased campus property to a private school without a public vote, hiked fees for a controversial new on-campus YMCA, and leased space at a privately built apartment complex without state approval, to name a few.

“If any university needs to do this search in an open, above-board, transparent way, it’s Wichita State,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“There is a powerful symbolic statement that is made when the very first interaction you have with a president is to say, ‘We regard open and transparent governance as an annoyance,’” LoMonte said. “We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Public participation in campus decision making is something to be avoided and minimized at all costs.’”

Interestingly, when you look a level or two beneath the presidency — including recent searches for new deans at WSU’s College of Engineering and the W. Frank Barton School of Business — those finalists’ names are released, and they address public questions and concerns before they are hired.

Asked whether WSU officials would prefer an open search process for their president, spokeswoman Lainie Mazzullo said, “All elements of the search are guided by the Kansas Board of Regents.”

That’s true. So the Regents should return to their previous practice of open searches at public universities, which are funded by public dollars. If they’re hesitant to do so, state lawmakers should take up the cause and demand transparency.

It’s the best way to ensure integrity in the process, that a diverse variety of well-qualified candidates receives consideration, and that the person who emerges is the right choice.

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