When should a meeting be open to the public? Most of the time. And if you can’t decide, “err on the side of caution” and conduct it in the open, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe told more than 80 government officials last week. Howe conducted a training session for elected officials, appointed officials and city managers, administrators and the public because of a number of complaints about illegal meetings for more than a year. Of the more than 80 officials who attended, less than a fourth were elected officials, a couple were from boards or commissions, a handful were citizens. The vast majority was government staff.
Howe cited the cities of Mission and Gardner this year for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Shawnee is under investigation for possible violations involving a meeting that resulted in a mayor’s relative being appointed to the council.
But several elected officials from those cities skipped Howe’s session.
Mayors of two of those cities — Jeff Meyers of Shawnee and David Drovetta of Gardner — did not attend Howe’s session.
Meyers said he had a work conflict and had contacted the district attorney. Drovetta, who has said he does not believe his city violated the open meetings law, said he attended a city-sponsored session last year put on by the state’s attorney general.
Four Mission council members did not attend the session.
Mission Councilwoman Debbie Kring said she and two other Mission council members, Pat Quinn and Jennifer Cowdry, attended a session put on by the League of Kansas Municipalities on Oct. 6.
Mission Councilman David Shepard said he did not attend Howe’s training because he had to travel out of town for work and was working to arrange another session.
Three of five Gardner council members did not attend Howe’s session. Kristina Harrison and Chris Morrow said they attended the Gardner-sponsored training last year. Heath Freeman said he had a work conflict.
In Shawnee, five of eight council members did not attend.
Shawnee council members Dawn Kuhn, who had to work, and Mickey Sandifer said they already had attended several open meetings training sessions prior to the alleged violation. Councilwoman Michelle Distler said she had already scheduled a trip to California from Oct. 17 to 22 and could not reschedule. She called the district attorney when she saw the conflict and is working with his office to find another training session.
Shawnee council members Jeff Vaught and Neal Sawyer did not provide reasons for their absence.
Howe said he thought the session was very productive and feedback immediately afterward was positive. He said he plans to start conducting the sessions periodically.
“It was well received by everyone who attended the session,” Howe said. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t continue to do it. The number of written questions and the number of questions during the presentation indicated to me that people wanted to make sure they did things the right way, and they asked a lot of pointed questions. I appreciate that.”
The state’s attorney general and district attorney’s offices have held training sessions on open records and meetings in the past but it has been more than a decade since the district attorney held one specifically for Johnson County.
Gardner Councilman Larry Fotovich, who filed the complaint that resulted in violations in his city, said the session was helpful but the law seems to have loopholes.
“It was useful but there are too many gray areas to really hold the council accountable because a lot of it is left up to interpretation by the council, city attorney and the district attorney,” Fotovich said.
Mission Councilwoman Amy Miller also said she thought the state legislature needed to revisit the law to make it easier to follow.
Steve Obermeier, senior deputy district attorney, led the discussion and referenced an incident in January involving numerous state legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback held a series of private dinner meetings with legislators, mostly Republicans, which the Shawnee district attorney found to be in violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Obermeier said one of the violations they made is that they failed to give public notice that said when the meetings are going to be held and where. The notice also must be published in advance giving the public reasonable time to make arrangement to attend. Although Kansas law is silent on what is reasonable, many states require at least 24-hour notice.
Kansas law allows a governing body to close a meeting to discuss personnel. But Obermeier said the personnel discussion has to be about individuals, such as when discussing giving a raise or behavior. If the governing body is discussing downsizing its staff in general, that should be public.
There was discussion about what some considered a flaw in the law: It only allows 21 days to reverse a decision made in an illegal meeting.
For example, Mission Mayor Laura McConwell approved the purchase of a building without council approval. But the council did not learn and discuss the purchase until two or three months later. At that point it was too late to void the building purchase, Obermeier and Howe said.
McConwell attended the session but did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Tony Lauer, a Shawnee resident who filed the complaint against his city alleging an illegal meeting, said the session was an important first step but more meetings were needed because the law seemed to have a number of gray areas.
“It seems there may be a need for further training to clarify details,” he said.
Roeland Park Mayor Adrienne Foster said it was important to continue training because new council members are elected every year.
“It seems common sense that not everything should be told at a public setting but there are such broad interpretations of the law that sometimes I think it could be challenging especially for someone who is new to the council to understand that,” she said. “So it is very important to have that training.
Howe finished the session stressing that usually a lack of understanding of the law is the culprit.
“I do not think that government bodies are going out of their way to violate the open meetings act,” Howe said. “Intent goes a long way in what we are trying to do. If you do anything you can to unring the bell, that is what we look at.”
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