Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius was within the law in directing secret meetings of task forces to analyze state spending and services, a state judge ruled Monday.
But in his 12-page ruling, Shawnee County State District Court Judge Eric Rosen strongly rebuked Sebelius for doing public business behind closed doors.
"When meetings that directly impact public policy of our state occur out of the public's eye or ear, our democracy is put in jeopardy," Rosen wrote.
The decision was appealed almost immediately by the Journal-World and 13 other news organizations that sued Sebelius and her transition office about the meetings.
In his ruling, Rosen said Sebelius was not governed by the Kansas Open Meetings Act because she is not yet governor, and that her transition office was not an official state agency.
"While plaintiffs have suggested Kathleen Sebelius is the equivalent of governor, that is a leap this court is unwilling to take," Rosen wrote.
But Sebelius' contention that the meetings took place behind closed doors to elicit candid comment "simply misses the point," Rosen said. "The time has long passed that critical public policy decisions can be formulated and based on privately held discussion and secret meetings that hold no one accountable."
No option in law
Rosen said he had no option but to rule in Sebelius' favor because the state's open meetings law did not apply to a governor-elect or transition office.
Mike Merriam, the Topeka attorney representing the news organizations that filed the lawsuit, wasn't sure of that.
"His logic is that the governor-elect's transition office is not a state agency, and that's the end of the inquiry. We think he made a mistake," Merriam said. "The Kansas Open Meetings Act covers all kinds of entities that are not created by some statute, and this may be one of them."
Merriam also noted the Kansas Supreme Court has said the meetings law -- which requires government boards and commissions to have open sessions and notify the public of meetings -- should be interpreted liberally to promote open government.
Incoming House Speaker Doug Mays said the House Ethics and Elections Commission would review the meetings law. "I think there is a loophole there -- a big loophole," said Mays, R-Topeka. "I think it's been utilized for years, but it took this to bring attention to it."
Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said he expected his chamber to take up the issue as well.
Nicole Corcoran-Basso, a spokeswoman for Sebelius, said Sebelius was pleased with the ruling. "We always believed we were following the law, and Judge Rosen's ruling supports that," Corcoran-Basso said.
The groups, which Sebelius dubbed Budget Efficiency Savings Teams, included about 60 people appointed by the governor-elect. The teams met 18 times in November and December, according to court testimony. Sebelius released a list of more than 100 suggestions the teams made. She did not back any of the recommendations, which she said would save about $50 million.
"We released all the ideas. The good, the bad, the impossible," Corcoran-Basso said.
Sebelius has said that after she is sworn into office next Monday, any subsequent meetings will be open to the public. She has yet to appoint a task force to analyze public school and higher education funding.
Joining the Journal-World in the lawsuit were The Associated Press, Kansas Press Assn., Kansas Association of Broadcasters, The Chanute Tribune, The Garden City Telegram, The Hays Daily News, The Hutchinson News, The Ottawa Herald, The Parsons Sun, The (Pittsburg) Morning Sun, The Salina Journal, The Topeka Capital-Journal and The Wichita Eagle.