Proposed listserve pushes boundaries on open meetings

David Burress wants to bring “electronic democracy” to his colleagues on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

But the proposal could stumble on laws created before the rise of cyberspace.

Burress last week e-mailed commission members and the media with a proposal to create a listserve — an e-mail mailing list — to allow conversation on planning issues to continue when the commission is not in session, essentially creating a permanent meeting.

The result would be “essentially equivalent to a study session of the planning commission,” Burress wrote, “except that the listserver has no time of adjournment, but just continues forever.”

Assistant City Manager David Corliss said this week the open-ended nature of the listserve could violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which requires commission discussions to take place in public.

Commissioners are allowed by law to e-mail their colleagues on an issue, he said, but a “meeting” results when that contact develops into full-blown online discussion. Telephone conference calls are allowed, he said, but only when the public is given a specific time and place to listen in, something difficult to achieve when the meeting is always in session.

Corliss, however, acknowledged there is little precedent on the issue.

“I am not aware of an Kansas court decision or attorney general opinion on a proposal of this nature,” Corliss said in a memo to city officials.

Kim Gulley, a spokeswoman for the League of Kansas Municipalities, said she was unaware of any municipal government using listserves to discuss issues outside regular meetings.

“It’s an interesting question,” Gulley said. “We’re going to have more of this as technology grows.”

Burress said his intent was not to circumvent open meetings laws. Residents could sign up to receive the e-mails exchanged on the listserve, he said, and no votes would be allowed online. Commissioners, he said, would benefit from more in-depth discussion on topics outside regular meeting hours.

Marci Francisco, president of the Lawrence-Douglas County League of Women Voters, was intrigued by Burress’ proposal.

“The opportunity to discuss the issues in a broad manner would be helpful,” she said. “But we don’t want somebody on the planning commission to be buried in work or to be required to have a computer.”

Bobbie Flory, director of the Lawrence Home Builders Assn., was more skeptical.

“I think that would take a lot of people out of the loop who don’t have the Internet,” Flory said. “I appreciate his pledges, but it’s not accessible to everyone.”

Burress disagreed.

“Anybody in the United States can get computer access at very little cost by going to the public library,” he said.