Kansans are increasingly being denied the right to see firsthand how their local governments operate, according to Johnson County District Attorney Stephen M. Howe.
“In a democracy,” Howe said, “it’s not enough to inform people of the decisions government makes. People want to hear the discussion that led to those decisions.”
In a speech on Monday in Kedzie Hall, Howe spoke of his recent battles with public officials in Johnson County who allegedly violated open meeting laws. Howe said there is a “growing concern” among local prosecutors across the state about open meeting violations.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act applies to all government organizations and agencies, including state universities that receive public funds. The law guarantees citizens the right to attend the meetings held by such agencies, identifies specific protocols for holding a closed meeting and prescribes cash fines for officials who violate the law.
Howe described the two most common types of violations. “Serial” meetings are those in which one public official instigates a series of personal contacts — a chain reaction that results in group consensus without a formal meeting.
“Executive sessions,” he said, create the other most common type of abuse. Such closed-door sessions are permitted to handle sensitive matters such as personnel decisions or the purchase of real estate. However, the executive session must be confined to its advertised topic. Howe said that public officials frequently use executive sessions to discuss a variety of other issues that were not announced in advance during the public portion of the meeting.
“My goal is to get these people educated so they don’t make these mistakes,” Howe said, “and if you notice, some of these instances are really technical violations, but they are violations.”
Howe said many violations are not malicious, but the result of ignorance by public officials who should know the provisions of the law. He said his office recently sponsored an “open meetings” training session. More than 200 Johnson County public officials attended.
The confusion about when to open or close a meeting, apparently, is not confined to local officials.
A 2008 investigation by Shawnee County prosecutors found that state legislators had “a surprising lack of knowledge” about the open meetings law. According to the investigation, in a recorded exchange between Matt Patterson, district attorney, and State Rep. Joseph Scapa (R-Wichita), Patterson asked Scapa if he had violated the law during a private meeting with the governor.
“No, it wasn’t a violation,” Scapa said.
“Why do you say that?” Patterson asked.
“Because that’s what I believe,” Scapa said.
“Fair enough,” Patterson replied. “What’s your belief based on?”
“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” Scapa said, “but that’s what I know.”
Howe said the Kansas law has flaws that make it difficult to enforce. The law states that any action taken during an illegally closed meeting is rendered null and void, but only if the prosecutor files suit within 21 days of the illegal meeting. It is nearly impossible, he said, to fully investigate such complaints in such a short period of time.
For more information about the Kansas Open Meetings Act, go to ag.ks.gov/legal-services/open-govt.