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Benefits dispute raises question of whether e-mail is public record

November 24, 2001

WICHITA, Kan. — Sedgwick County commissioners cited negative calls and e-mails last month when they rejected domestic-partners benefits for county employees.

But Maureen Horowitz says she was shocked when city officials refused to say how many e-mails were for and against the benefits. She made the request under the Kansas Open Records Act.

"Oddly enough, it was suggested to us by someone in the county communications office (to make the request)," Horowitz said. "If they're making policy allegedly based on this input from the public, then how can those e-mails be private?"

The state attorney general's office is already studying the issue of whether e-mails are public or private.

In a separate case involving the city of Hays and The Hays Daily News, the attorney general's office is drafting its first legal opinion on the issue, Assistant Attorney General Theresa Nuckolls said. The opinion will not have the force of law but will carry influence until and unless someone challenges it, said John Bird, the city attorney in Hays who requested the opinion.

"A public official who relies on it can't be accused of misconduct," he said. Conversely, officials who go against an attorney general's opinion don't have that protection and face tougher sanctions if they lose, he said.

Supporters of the domestic-partners benefit in Wichita don't dispute that commissioners received plenty of negative comments. Several churches in the area organized their members to call and write.

But supporters say they sent more than the handful of messages that commissioners acknowledged receiving. Since the vote, they say they've collected more than 1,000 signatures asking the commission to hold a full public hearing on the issue, which was voted on without an open debate.

Although commissioners said they would welcome the attorney general's guidance, several had concerns about releasing e-mail messages.

"If all of a sudden your e-mail is open to anybody who wants to request it," Sedgwick County Commissioner Ben Sciortino said, "you could make the argument that it is kind of an invasion of privacy."

But even if the e-mails were considered public records, Horowitz would have a tough time getting her hands on them. Most of the commissioners said they had deleted the e-mails she requested.

By The Associated Press


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