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Archive for Sunday, January 6, 2002

Public or private?

January 6, 2002

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E-mail is yet another avenue to circumvent the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

An opinion by the Kansas attorney general's office that e-mail messages between city commissioners are not public records again points out the limitations of the state's Open Meetings Act.

The AG's opinion was sought by the Hays city attorney after The Hays Daily News requested access to city commissioners' e-mails. The request came in response to reports that city commissioners were using e-mail to discuss city business, a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Although the attorney general's office was specific in saying its opinion didn't directly address open meetings rules, it said that e-mail communication between city commissioners is not part of the public record. E-mails between city commissioners and city employees would be public, but not those between city commissioners.

At issue here was whether Hays city commissioners had been in violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Law which prohibits a majority of a quorum of any elected body from discussing or conducting public business outside a public meeting. The spirit of the law is to ensure that public officials discuss and decide public business in an open meeting rather than behind closed doors. The intent of the law is good, but it is not an easy statute to enforce.

In Hays, the newspaper had received reports that commissioners were using e-mail to discuss city business. The paper requested copies of commissioners' e-mails. Although the city attorney had advised that commissioners weren't required to share that information, three commissioners voluntarily sent copies of e-mail that had been saved in their computers. One commissioner declined and another didn't respond.

Although the attorney general didn't support the newspaper's contention that the records were public, the e-mail that was voluntarily supplied nonetheless showed that commissioners were conducting city business via e-mail, according to managing editor Mike Corn.

Anyone who uses e-mail should be aware that it isn't a completely secure or private communication. However, when e-mail messages go between two city officials who want to keep them private, it is relatively difficult for constituents to detect or monitor that communication. Officials could use such communication to circumvent the open meetings law for long periods of time unless someone slips up and is found out.

E-mail isn't the only villain. Telephone conversations also are difficult to monitor. That's why its incumbent on city officials to monitor themselves and their colleagues to make sure the spirit of the open meetings law is adhered to.

It's an important law that unfortunately is too easy to circumvent. Conducting business in the public eye is an important aspect of representative government that both officials and constituents should work hard to protect.

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