KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas judge on Friday ruled that Gov. Sam Brownback does not have the right to withhold the names of applicants for two newly created county commission seats that he filled late last year.
The Associated Press and Salina Journal filed a lawsuit against Brownback’s office in January seeking the names of more than a dozen applicants for two seats on the Saline County Commission, which voters in November expanded from three to five members.
In December, the Journal requested copies of the applications and the AP requested a list of applicants’ names and hometowns. Brownback’s press secretary denied both requests, saying the information was protected under personnel exemptions in the Kansas Open Records Act.
On Dec. 18 — the same day press secretary Eileen Hawley rejected an AP reporter’s request — Brownback appointed banker David Smith and former Salina Mayor Luci Larson to the commission.
The media lawsuit contended that contrary to Hawley’s assertions, applicants for a public governmental entity are neither state employees nor exempt from disclosure under the open records law.
Shawnee County District Judge Rebecca Crotty agreed, saying exceptions to the open records law are to be narrowly interpreted. Because the applicants weren’t seeking a job with the state, they don’t qualify under the exemption cited by Brownback’s office, she said.
Crotty said the state can redact personal details of the applicants, such as Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden names and applicants’ birth places, but the rest of the documents are public information. It was unclear when the records will be available.
Her ruling came one day after both sides were in court presenting arguments.
“I’m very pleased by the result,” said Nathanael Berg, a Salina attorney who represented the media outlets. “It’s clear that Judge Crotty put a lot of time into her decision. We’ll wait out whether the governor decides to appeal, and then get the records.”
Hawley issued a statement Friday saying the governor’s office was evaluating the ruling and what its next step will be.
The Kansas Press Association, which wasn’t a party to the lawsuit, applauded Crotty’s ruling, saying the organization believed all along that details about candidates for public office are public information.
“We’re very proud of all who were involved in this lawsuit,” said Rich Gannon, the association’s government affairs director. “They stood up for the people of Kansas.”
The Topeka Capital-Journal, while not a formal party to the lawsuit, helped with legal fees.
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