JoCo District Attorney candidates on the issues: Kansas open records, meeting laws adequacy

The Johnson County District Attorney candidates weigh in on whether Kansas open meetings and open records laws provide adequate access to investigatory actions and decision-making within law enforcement, the district attorney and the courts. File photo.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for Johnson County District Attorney.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #4:

Do Kansas open records and open meetings laws give the public adequate access to the investigatory actions and decision-making procedures of law enforcement, the district attorney and the courts? Please explain your response.

Steve Howe (incumbent Republican)

The Kansas Open Records and Open Meetings acts have provisions within the law to protect investigative records. This was done for several reasons. The first is to avoid having disclosures jeopardize criminal investigations. Making those available would allow a criminal to avoid being held accountable for his or her crime. Criminal investigations also acquire very privileged information such as HIPPA documents and other personal and sensitive information about individuals. Disclosing all data would also inhibit our ability to gather truthful information from witnesses, in fear of it being disclosed to the accused or the public. Kansas has modified its law recently to provide information to the public. In officer involved shootings, the affected family or individual can view any body or car camera videos. Once a case is filed the public has access to probable cause affidavits that are filed with the court. A filed case will have all of its court hearings open to the public. Ultimately, the information will become public, it’s the matter of the timing of the release of the information. The release of the information is also restricted pursuant to Supreme Court Rules. These rules and the defendant’s constitutional rights to a fair trial require a balance between the public’s right to know versus an individual’s right to a fair trial.

Zach Thomas (Democrat)

I believe the Kansas Open Records Act and other sunshine laws generally provide adequate access to the public. There are exceptions to these laws because certain information needs to be kept private for a variety of reasons. This is why it is so important to have public officials that are committed to transparency and public accountability. Open records laws should never be used by an official to hide information. I have made transparency a central focus of my campaign, and I am committed to ensuring the public has confidence in the District Attorney’s Office by being transparent and accountable to the public.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to the final item on our questionnaire:

Describe what you believe to be the proper role and parameters of the District Attorney’s office to communicate to the public regarding criminal investigations and charging decisions.