A reader left a voice mail for me late last week, asking me to share some thoughts on a project by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy that sought property tax records from 105 Kansas counties. The gist of the message was that the organization didn’t really have a right to the records — or was doing something wrong by “raising a stink” at being denied records — because it is not a news organization, but is a think tank that supports a specific point of view.
My reaction: Good for FHC. Doesn’t matter who you are or why you want public records. They’re public. Period. That’s why agencies aren’t legally allowed to ask who you are or why you want records (though state law doesn’t stop some from asking anyway). Public records belong to the people, regardless of the purpose for which they’re sought.
One of the most common — and ill-informed — arguments made for denying disclosure of records to a media organization is that “you don’t represent the public, you just represent yourself.” Most individuals don’t know where to go to obtain information, how to ask for it, how to argue for it when it’s denied, or what the law requires of public agencies. If records are illegally withheld, few people have the resources to legally compel an agency to comply with the law.
If individual citizens, bloggers, other media outlets or non-profit organizations such as the Flint Hills Center are willing to invest the time and resources to support open government in Kansas, I support their efforts.