... Yet even in the land of the First Amendment and nearly 250 years into the American experiment, telling the truth — or simply seeking it — remains a revolutionary act.
Just ask Debbie Miller.
The Independence, Kansas, citizen watchdog had to chase her city council members all the way to Topeka and the state attorney general’s office to force them to cough up the simplest of public documents.
In 2016, Miller simply sought a copy of a blank performance form used to evaluate the city manager. The city refused, claiming it was a personnel matter and a unique work product not subject to disclosure. The attorney general’s office easily found otherwise — and, interestingly enough, learned that the form in question wasn’t a unique work product, but “was in fact a city manager performance evaluation form publicly available on the internet.”
The city ultimately signed a consent order with the AG agreeing to provide the document, obtain open records training and pay a $250 fine.
It was a small victory by a lone-wolf citizen, but any victory in openness is a thing to be celebrated. It’s also a beautiful example of down-home civics and of the lengths to which, even today, Americans must be dogged in their pursuit of truth and transparency.
Fittingly, Miller became the first purely private citizen with no professional or personal interest in the outcome of an open records battle to win the Friend of Open Government Award from the nonprofit Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.
The coalition has been giving out such awards periodically since 2004 to media figures and organizations, attorneys and even legislators who uphold the spirit of openness. Two student publications also have been cited by the coalition: the Wichita State University Sunflower (for reporting on administrative problems at WSU) and the Emporia State University Bulletin (for coverage of a faculty member’s disciplinary proceedings over allegations of sexual harassment).
Miller didn’t think herself worthy of such company at first. But then she thought about the struggle and the forces often allied against the public in gaining access to the records it rightfully owns.
“Every person, even an older woman from a town of 9,000 people, who’s been fighting a seemingly endless and hopeless battle with her city government to obtain records per (the Kansas Open Records Act), can make a difference in ensuring open government,” Miller wrote to the coalition. “I hope this realization will either get other individuals motivated to join the effort, or keep individuals motivated who’ve been trying to be a part of the effort, despite the hurdles placed before them.”
It’s a rallying cry we hope is heard throughout the region — especially in Frontenac, not that far from Independence in southeastern Kansas, where residents of the state and the attorney general have again joined forces to wage transparency on a buttoned-up bureaucracy. After three top city officials were fired without discussion in September, the city further stonewalled requests to see preceding emails or other correspondence that might explain the city council’s vote.
Again, it’s amazing so many of us have to go to such great lengths to force our local governments to be open and above board with us. But that’s where we are in 21st century middle America.
Nor is it just local governments that bear watching.
“Kansas runs one of the most secretive state governments in the nation, and its secrecy permeates nearly every aspect of service,” The Star’s six-part series “Why So Secret, Kansas?” concluded in 2017...
Clearly our shared work as citizens isn’t done. Clearly it never will be. Our vigilance must indeed be eternal.