Proposed changes to the state's open meetings law would make it easier on elected officials but tougher on public dialogue, a KU professor says.
Mark Buhler sees enough of his fellow Douglas County commissioners every week, but he wouldn't mind seeing them a little more -- at a restaurant, movie or luncheon, for example.
Social interaction among elected officials can lead to better government, he said, through mutual understandings of the personalities involved in the decision-making process.
It's something the Kansas Open Meetings Act now prevents unless prior notification of the public occurs first.
"It's very difficult to get to know your fellow commissioners," Buhler said Wednesday. "The truth is, we avoid each other like the plague, just because of the perception."
But changing the law to allow such social meetings -- as proposed in legislation being debated in Topeka -- actually could lead to more "closed-door" government, shutting the public out of potentially decisive debates about important issues, a Kansas University journalism professor said.
"It would be a lot easier to talk about the tough things at a cocktail party Sunday night at the mayor's house, but it wouldn't be right," said Ted Frederickson, who specializes in open records and teaches media law at KU. "It's the public's business, and it should be conducted in public."
Such is the debate continuing in the Senate Local Government Committee, which is considering a bill that would clarify the open meetings act by allowing members of local governing bodies to meet:
- At social gatherings, as long as they do not transact public business.
- In executive, or private, session, to discuss appointments to boards and commissions.
Local officials support the proposed changes, although none have traveled to Topeka to testify on the bill's behalf.
"Maybe there's an underlying suspicion or belief that all commissioners think about is city business," Commissioner Bob Moody said. "It's more to be able to get together and enjoy each other as individuals."
Frederickson said the law already was too weak, and that the changes would make a bad situation worse.
Discussing public issues and appointing members to public boards are part of what a democracy is all about, he said: public dialogue.
"I'm one of those who think the public should be part of that conversation," Frederickson said.
If approved in the Senate, the bill still would face debate in the House. In the lower chamber, it likely would be assigned to the House Local Government Committee, where Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, is one of 17 members. He declined to comment on specific legislation, because he hadn't seen it yet.
"In principle, I support the public having access to decision makers and being involved in the decision-making process," he said. "If the bill gets over to my committee, we'll have something to talk about."