Government should be limited but transparent

(The Kansas City Star - Guest Commentary) “What is Kansas trying to hide?” This recent headline in The Kansas City Star focused on an issue that has become increasingly prevalent in our public institutions: a lack of transparency and openness.

This is a troubling trend from the state capitol to local government.

In Wichita, the school board has repeatedly shut out the public by making use of so-called “three-by-three” meetings. Board members regularly gather to discuss matters behind closed doors, but do so in groups of three (less than a quorum) to avoid being subjected to open meeting laws that would allow public participation. And while this practice may not violate the letter of the law, there is no denying it violates the spirit of the law.

In Leavenworth County, the recent controversy over a new Tyson chicken plant would have benefited from less secrecy. Would citizens of Tonganoxie have been more receptive to Tyson’s proposal had the members of the community been part of the planning process? We will never know. Because, instead of an open process which creates trust by inviting input, local and state officials kept the public in the dark. (The matter even had a secret code name, “Project Sunset.”)

And even my own political party, the GOP, is struggling with matters of openness and transparency. The party has drafted an agreement outlining strict rules for our upcoming gubernatorial debates. These rules censor moderator questions and candidate responses. Rather than a sharp, tough debate, Kansans will get bland talking points. This approach benefits the candidates, not the public. The party, not Kansans.

The foundational element of representative democracy is the constituent — the voter. Every tax dollar spent in this country is ultimately approved by voters through their local, state and federal elections. It’s the voters’ right to know where money comes from and how it’s being spent, what laws are being considered and how government decisions may affect our businesses and families.

A belief in limited government goes hand in hand with transparency. Citizens are owed it and deserve an open approach, because they are in charge — not the other way around.

I’ve spent 11 years building and guiding the Kansas Leadership Center. I’ve worked with thousands of leaders across Kansas and the world. My experiences have shown me that people will try to hide information for two main reasons: fear or pride. 

Leaders should not be afraid. Leaders should keep their pride in check. As we have seen, we do not have a culture of openness in our government today, though there are individual exceptions. (House Speaker Ron Ryckman and a number of other legislators come to mind.) 

I am running for governor and pledge to demonstrate the type of openness and transparency we need to create a thriving Kansas. I will not sign legislation without full and open hearings, nor will I sign legislation if it is not clear who sponsored it. 

I will create a cabinet that understands real progress is made by bringing people together, with all the right information, in an open and engaging process. My administration will share all the news, the good and the bad. That’s what leaders do. Leaders own up to their mistakes. They know they are not perfect and work their tail off to get better each day. Hiding bad news or burying objective metrics that don’t support your position is not leadership. It’s protectionism. We must trust the public and believe that transparency is a necessary ingredient to make progress. 

Ultimately, it gets down to what we care most about: progress for Kansas or our own hides? Safety for kids or preserving our own reputation? Quality of schools or our next election? Kansans need us to choose wisely. Transparency, inclusion, openness and honesty always win. 

Former Kansas state representative Ed O’Malley, a Republican, is running for governor.