Archive for Saturday, April 25, 1998


April 25, 1998


Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall has issued an interesting opinion on a potential violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Are your public officials engaging in ``serial communication?''

The term used by Kansas Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall Friday to describe what she believes is a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act sounds pretty sinister.

In an opinion requested by the Montgomery County attorney, Stovall wrote: ``A series of meetings, each of which involves less than a majority of a quorum of a public body, but collectively totaling a majority of a quorum, at which there is a common topic of discussion of the business or affairs of that body, constitutes a meeting for purposes of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.''

Such action, according to Stovall, would constitute ``serial communication.''

An example: The five-member Lawrence City Commission has legally raised its quorum number to four. That allows two commissioners to talk one-on-one about city business outside a public meeting. If, however, one of those two commissioners then speaks to a third commissioner about the same issue, the three of them together would constitute a majority of a quorum and they all would qualify as serial communicators, who are in violation of the open meetings law.

The opinion, according to the AG's office, also would apply to electronic communications, such as e-mail.

The spirit of this opinion is laudable. The idea of the Kansas Open Meetings Act is to ensure that public business is conducted in public. Certain matters are allowed to be discussed in closed executive sessions, but all other issues should be hashed out in public meetings, not in private conversations between elected officials.

At the same time, the AG's opinion points out how much Kansas residents have to rely on their public officials to be honest and above-board in conducting business. Average residents can't monitor public officials' e-mail or listen in on their phone calls. Unless one school board member tells the other member that he already has discussed this issue with a third member, there's not any full-proof way for even the public officials to know they might be violating the law.

The law is a good one, but it's virtually impossible to enforce except in cases of extreme violations, usually involving controversial issues that draw increased public attention.

It's good to know that ``serial communication'' is a crime in Kansas. Let's hope it's a law few Kansas communities will ever have to test.

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