FRONTENAC — Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office announced Monday it had notified the City of Frontenac that it violated the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) in requesting a $3,500 fee in order to provide copies of public records.
Last fall, news outlets including the Morning Sun filed records requests with the City of Frontenac related to the city council’s September firings of the city administrator, attorney and clerk.
In October, television reporter Zach Dodge filed a formal KORA complaint with the attorney general’s office “alleging, in part, that the city’s $3,500 fee request to furnish public records he requested on September 18 was unreasonable,” according to the AG’s office. “Upon investigation, the attorney general’s office determined that Frontenac’s fee request was unreasonable and thus violated the KORA because it failed to explain or justify its $3,500 fee request, including why it was seeking $225.00 per hour for any time spent by its outside legal counsel.”
As a result of the violation, the attorney general has imposed requirements on the city including that it cease and desist from any further violation of the KORA; review and make changes to its city ordinance outlining fees for access to public records to ensure compliance with the KORA; and to adopt, review, or update city policies governing how staff respond to KORA requests, including the calculation of necessary costs.
Schmidt’s office is also requiring the city to establish and maintain a city staff checklist for use in calculating KORA request costs; provide KORA training for any interim or permanently appointed city attorney, administrator, clerk, records custodian or others required to respond to KORA requests; and to provide the attorney general with a written report of compliance within 60 days of the finding of violation, which was Feb. 11.
“The Attorney General finds that formal action is warranted in order to remedy the city's violation of the KORA. After due consideration of the facts of this case, the Attorney General determines that a Finding of Violation is the appropriate sanction to remedy this violation and deter any future violations,” the AG’s office wrote in its finding of violation.
“While the city may recover its actual costs in responding to a KORA request, those costs must still be reasonable,” the finding states. “An hourly rate of $225.00 per hour for attorney time is per se unreasonable. Outside counsel may charge a governmental entity for its services. However, based on the public policy and purpose of the KORA, it is unreasonable for a public agency to pass those costs onto a requester without a significant reduction in the hourly fee rate.”
Ron Keefover, president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, said the finding by Schmidt’s office was a victory for government transparency.
“It reinforces, in my mind, the need for statewide education and re-education of public officials about the provisions of KORA,” Keefover said.
“What still is a concern to the Sunshine Coalition is the city’s interpretation that city council members are not included in the 2016 legislation that opened emails between state-level public officials if it involves official business,” Keefover said. “The City in their latest response to Sunshine’s correspondence indicated that they consider themselves exempt from that part of the Open Records Act.”
Keefover said that issue, as well as cost containment for public records requests, are issues his organization is pursuing during the current legislative session.
The City of Frontenac could not be reached for comment by press time.