Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

Legislature enjoys exemption from state open meetings law

December 29, 2002


— Republican leaders needed to know whether senators would support immediate spending cuts to deal with a budget crisis that still persists.

Because the GOP controls 30 of 40 Senate seats, a poll of Republicans would give them an answer, and Republican leaders called a caucus meeting one morning in early February of this year. Afterward, they canceled a Senate debate on budget cuts.

None of the debate among senators and little information from the caucus is known, more than 10 months later. The meeting was closed to the public, even though a majority of senators participated.

The Kansas Open Meetings Act is supposed to keep government accessible, but it contains an exemption that allows the Legislature to close meetings as it sees fit. The Senate Republican caucus in February was one example.

The House and Senate shut out the public from relatively few of hundreds of meetings each year, but the few closed meetings still rankle some lawmakers.

The Legislature is expected to review the Open Meetings Act next year, and a few members say it ought to re-examine its own exemption.

"If the Legislature wants to start talking about open meetings issues, they're standing in a giant glass greenhouse," said Rep. Rocky Nichols, D-Topeka.

The open meetings law is an issue again because of closed meetings by government review teams Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius appointed. Fourteen news organizations, including the Journal-World and The Associated Press, sued her, arguing that the meetings should have been open. Sebelius maintains that her transition office is not covered by the law.

There's little ambiguity about the Legislature's status under the Open Meetings Act. So long as they include provisions in the House and Senate rules, legislators can close meetings.

"If we're going to crack down on the executive branch, then we should look at our branch," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

One Senate rule allows Democratic and Republican caucuses to be closed. Another says the all-GOP Organization, Calendar and Rules Committee can close meetings when it prepares to make committee assignments.

Statute 75-4317"(a) In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public."Statute 75-4318"(a) Except as otherwise provided by state or federal law or by rules of the House or Senate, and except with respect to any impeachment inquiry or other impeachment matter referred to any committee of the House of Representatives prior to the report of such committee to the full house of representatives, all meetings for the conduct of the affairs of, and the transaction of business by, all legislative and administrative bodies and agencies of the state ... shall be open to the public."

The House rules contain no similar provisions and include a statement that its committees and subcommittees fall under the Open Meetings Act.

The joint rules, governing interactions between the two chambers, allow any committee of either to close meetings to discuss security matters.

The question of whether the Legislature's exemption ought to be narrowed hasn't come up much with news organizations, said Jeff Burkhead, executive director of the Kansas Press Assn. Most of its members are more concerned about potential violations of the law in local government.

However, he added, "We're always concerned about exemptions for meetings. Our position would be that we would like to see meetings open."

Senate President Dave Kerr said relatively few meetings, even Senate GOP caucuses like the one in February, are closed the public.

Some of Kerr's colleagues are not so sure.

"They're open until somebody comes in who they don't want in," said Sen. Stan Clark, R-Oakley. "Generally, it's a reporter."

Clark said GOP leaders use closed caucuses to poll senators quickly, without having to rely on meetings with only a few at a time. He said if all caucuses were open, Senate Republicans probably would have "serial meetings" in small groups.

But Senate Democrats and House members generally don't see the need for closed caucuses. Senate Democrats and House Republicans and Democrats have kept theirs open.

"Once you become accustomed to holding meetings in public, it's not that big a deal," said incoming House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "Once you get out of that mentality that you have to have secret meetings, you being to wonder why people need secret meetings."

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