WICHITA, Kan. — The Kansas agency that oversees psychiatric facilities sent a memo earlier this month to employees at the troubled Larned State Hospital warning them that said they should not to speak to state lawmakers without permission from the department, according to a newspaper.

The Kansas City Star reports it obtained a copy of a Nov. 15 memo sent to Larned employees by the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

When contacted Tuesday, Department Secretary Tim Keck said employees won’t be disciplined for talking to lawmakers, as long as they make it clear they are not representing the agency.

“It’s about who has the right to talk on behalf of the agency,” he said.

Keck said his department didn’t help craft the memo, although it says employees must obtain permission from his spokeswoman. He said he is not aware of other state agencies issuing similar policies.

“I think we’ll probably have to take the policy back to (Larned) leadership for clarification,” Keck said.

Larned Superintendent Bill Rein said in a statement that since the memo was released, he has “made it clear” the policy applies only to official business of the hospital and the department.

“We have never, nor do we ever intend to discipline employees who express their personal beliefs, experiences, and concerns with the media or legislators,” he said.

Larned, which serves mentally ill patients, has been under scrutiny because low staffing is forcing employees to work long hours. Hospital employees have accounted for nearly a quarter of the state’s overtime pay during the 2016 fiscal year, leading to concerns about employee and patient safety.

Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said he believes the memo likely violated the Kansas Whistleblower Act.

The memo drew bipartisan criticism from legislative leaders. It was sent out the same week The Star published a series of stories on secrecy throughout the Kansas government.

“It’s the chutzpah that amazes me. The willingness to put that in writing is just amazing,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “I can’t imagine that it is either legal, nor is it good policy. It is just no way for an employer to treat an employee to try and gag them.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, also questioned the policy.

“It doesn’t make sense because we’re all public servants and if they have an issue I’d rather they reach out to me,” Denning said. “They can’t keep anybody from talking to the Legislature.”

Rachel Whitten, spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback, said in an email that the policy applies only to the state hospital’s official business and “does not prohibit employees from speaking to their elected officials as a constituent.”


Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com