Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 17
Last month, Saline County voters approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin the expansion of their county commission from three members to five, but many of those voters may be surprised - and distressed - by the way the process for filling those two new seats is being handled.
State statute requires that the new commission seats be filled not by local officials or local voters but by the governor. The statute requires the governor to make the appointments within 30 days after the adoption of a resolution dividing the county into new commission districts, but it doesn’t spell out any of the details of how those appointments should be made.
Gov. Sam Brownback has decided those appointments should be made outside the public view. The governor has received the names of 13 applicants for one of the commission seats and conducted interviews for the position. However, he has refused to release the names of those applicants even after receiving two open records requests from the Salina Journal seeking those names.
A representative of the governor claimed the names were being withheld because the appointments were a personnel issue and, therefore, exempt from open records laws. Salina Journal officials logically point out that none of the applicants currently is a state or county employee and therefore the personnel exemption shouldn’t apply.
On top of that, we would add, the residents of Saline County have a right to know who is being considered for an appointment to represent them on their county commission.
The main reason Saline County voters sought to expand the commission was to add some diversity to the group. There likely was more than one issue that fueled the effort, but the “Drive for Five” movement was launched after the current commission decided on more than one occasion to reject federal funds that would be used by the county health department to purchase and distribute intrauterine devices and a specific type of birth control pill. It’s understandable that Saline County residents might be concerned that the governor’s pro-life political record might influence his appointments to the commission.
The governor’s decision to withhold the names of the county commission applicants is not unlike his decision to keep secret the names of applicants who are seeking appointment to the Kansas Court of Appeals. In both cases, the public has a right to know who is being considered and who the governor rejected as well as who he appointed. Refusing to release the names only feeds the perception that the governor has something to hide.
The public deserves this information, and the governor should provide it.
The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 16
Shining light on affidavits:
A new law is shining a welcome light on criminal justice as it unfolds in the state and especially Sedgwick County, where two documents released last week detail the reasons for the arrests and filing of criminal charges in capital murder cases.
Until this year, Kansas stood out among states for not considering probable cause affidavits to be open records. But the blanket secrecy ended last spring, as the Legislature overwhelmingly passed and Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill newly providing for public scrutiny of the documents used to secure arrest warrants.
A former judge, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, proved a tenacious advocate for the law in the Legislature. But passage also took the leadership of Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, who “really has tried to balance the public’s right to know with the need to protect the rights of the accused,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association.
Around the state, some judges are resisting the law and heeding defense attorneys’ contention that the release of the affidavits would be “prejudicial” to their clients - arguments contradicted by the long record of transparency in other states.
But credit is due Sedgwick County’s judges for respecting legislative intent and favoring disclosure. Last week Judge Ben Burgess unsealed the affidavits in the cases against Cornell A. McNeal, charged in the rape and murder of Letitia Davis, and Steven W. Edwards, one of two men accused of fatally shooting Martha and Godofredo Moreno - offering eye-opening perspective on what led to the arrests.
The openness should provide a well-timed boost to public trust in police and the justice system in Kansas.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 17
Guns and children:
We don’t know just what prompted a first-grade student at Indian Hills Elementary to stick a handgun into his or her backpack before going to school Monday morning.
Perhaps the child thought the gun was safer in the backpack than with parents who were careless enough to leave a loaded weapon lying around where a first-grader could pick it up.
Fortunately, there was no tragic ending to this story about a gun in a school building, although school officials have indicated the child will face consequences for the incident. A teacher noticed the gun and reported it immediately. Law enforcement officials were contacted and the student’s parents were notified of their child’s mistake.
It is hoped the child’s parents also realize the seriousness of their own role in what transpired.
Loaded handguns and children are a dangerous mix, anywhere, and responsible gun owners know enough to keep the two separate and safe.
If there are guns in a home, it’s best that young children don’t know where they are to be found. Trigger locks and gun safes also provide a measure of safety and security. Granted, gun owners who keep a weapon for home security don’t want to fool with a trigger lock or run to a safe if danger presents itself, but there’s no excuse for keeping a loaded gun where it can be picked up by a young child.
Topekans have read stories over the years about local children who have unintentionally shot themselves or someone else while playing with a gun. Those stories should have served as a warning to us all. Monday’s story, despite its uneventful ending, no doubt caused many people to think about what might have happened.
Law enforcement officials said that although the gun was loaded, there wasn’t a round in the chamber. But had other children found it, rather than a teacher, and started playing with it, the incident could have ended much differently.
The Topeka Capital-Journal has always been a supporter of the Second Amendment and citizens’ right to bear arms. But that right comes with responsibilities, and the ultimate responsibility for the incident at Indian Hills Elementary rests with the person who left a gun where a first-grader could latch onto it.
The Hutchinson News, Dec. 19
Rustling up answers:
Cattle rustling, which conjures up images of the wild west, is on the increase because of the higher prices for cattle now and the relative ease in pulling off the crime.
With beef prices hovering around $100 or more per hundredweight above a year ago, the incentive to steal cattle is higher. Because of their location in rural areas, it’s not difficult for thieves who know what they’re doing to pull up in a truck and quickly load up multiple head and be gone in relatively little time.
“High prices, that is the big contributor,” said Bill Brown, Kansas Animal Health commissioner. “When you used to be able to buy a baby calf for $50 or $75 and now it is several hundred dollars.”
In recent weeks and months, five longhorn cows and a bull, worth at least $10,000, were stolen in Kingman County. In Reno County a producer had four calves stolen near Salem and Castleton roads. Near Sylvan Grove, two black Angus cows and two calves were taken. A dozen 8-month-old steers and heifers were rustled in Sumner County. And 12 to 14 recently weaned Black Angus bulls and heifers were reported missing in Cheyenne County. That’s just a smattering of the reports in the state this year showing that the old art of cattle rustling is rampant in the state.
It has caused the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to join forces with the Kansas Department of Agriculture to form a new Livestock/Branding Investigation Unit. It will help law enforcement agencies investigate cattle thefts. It will be led by former Kiowa County Sheriff Kendal Lotham, a 22-year law enforcement veteran.
With the rise in cattle rustling, the unit is obviously needed. What’s also needed is the eyes of all who travel rural areas, cattle producers increasing security measures and a return to the old west ways of branding cattle. Kingman County Sheriff Investigator Dustin Cooke said ranchers should do all they can to secure their cattle and be aware of their surroundings and note anything that’s out of place. Everyone also should pitch in to keep an eye out for cattle being loaded, especially at odd times, such as at night.
“If you see something out of place, check it out,” said Cooke.
If ranchers return to the practice of branding cattle, it will take the incentive of rustlers away. For many years, producers have used ear tags to identify their cattle, but those are easily removed by thieves.
“Branding, that is the easiest thing for us,” Cooke said. “You can’t change something that’s permanent.”
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