Following state law isn’t
a matter of ‘geography’
Most Kansans may not be familiar with the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA), but any public official should be well aware of the law. That should be particularly true of our state legislators. After all, they passed it.
In short, the law requires that the public’s business - with a few exceptions - is conducted in public.
“Personnel” matters and discussions concerning the acquisition of real estate, for example, can be discussed behind closed doors. Public officials, on the other hand, are prohibited from taking votes in a closed session - even a so-called “test” vote.
To a large degree, all units of government - from city councils to county commissions to boards of education - adhere to the law pretty closely. However, there have also been a number of instances where government officials have skirted the law - sometimes through ignorance, sometimes knowingly - and been called out on it.
That includes legislative members of the Kansas Republican party. An investigation of a series of dinners at Gov. Sam Brownback’s Cedar Crest residence last year led to the Shawnee County district attorney ruling that legislators were in violation of the open meetings law.
Republican legislators didn’t like being called on the carpet and have taken exception to the district attorney’s interpretation of KOMA.
“I think the intent was to make sure we vote in public,” claimed Sen. President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) during a recent “training session” with the Shawnee County district attorney.
Under Wagle’s interpretation, elected officials should be able to meet secretly to discuss issues of public interest and only need to emerge from these meetings long enough to hold a vote. The public, according to Wagle, can be left in the dark as to the discussion leading up to the vote. Under Wagel’s interpretation, it’s possible the public wouldn’t even know an issue was being considered by a governing body until after a vote was taken.
And if legislators choose to discuss public policy at a “dinner” hosted by the governor, that’s perfectly fine with Wagle and fellow legislators.
Of course, not every legislator agrees with Wagle’s view of KOMA. At the time of the governor’s private dinners, Senate Majority Leader Steve Morris questioned whether they were violating state law. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he was the only Republican on the KPERS Select Committee who wasn’t invited to the dinner.
It may also be no coincidence that because Morris refused to play along, he’s now a former state senator.
Having been told they were violating the law, Republican legislators could do one of two things - comply with the law or change it. They’ve chosen the latter and have introduced legislation which will allow them to have “dinners” at Cedar Crest without fear of the district attorney, or the media, looking over their shoulder.
Of course, Sen. Mitch Holmes, the newly elected representative for the 38th District, favors the new legislation. During a recent legislative tour stop in Scott City, Sen. Holmes painted the KOMA controversy as an issue being trumped up by the eastern Kansas media.
“You probably haven’t even heard about it out here,” he surmised.
We aren’t quite sure what Sen. Holmes was suggesting - whether news from the state capitol and eastern Kansas doesn’t make it this far west, or whether people in Western Kansas simply don’t have the same concerns as those back east.
It was an odd statement that deserves a response.
Yes, Sen. Holmes, those of us paying attention to the legislative happenings in Topeka were aware of the KOMA controversy. We were also aware that Republicans were violating state law.
And we’d like to think that obeying the law is just as much a priority for Western Kansans - and our elected officials - as it is to that bothersome eastern Kansas media.
Open government matters to us in Western Kansas. You’re spending our tax dollars. You’re passing legislation that affects us, our businesses and our economic future as a state. We have a right to know not just the final vote, as Sen. Wagle suggests, but the debate leading to those votes.
In other words, we like to be informed. We believe the public’s business should be discussed in public.
It’s good enough for our cities, counties and school districts. It’s certainly good enough for our state legislature.
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