Archive for Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Public matters

January 7, 2003


It may be legal for the governor-elect's task forces to meet in private, but wouldn't open meetings better serve the public?

Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius has won the legal battle over private meetings by her budget-cutting task forces, but the philosophical and ethical verdict may still be out.

Shawnee County District Judge Eric Rosen ruled on Monday that the BEST (Budget Efficiency Savings Team) task forces appointed by Sebelius to conduct a "top-to-bottom" review of state spending could legally meet in private under the Kansas Open Meetings Act. However, Rosen's ruling also expressed frustration with the limits of the law.

"When meetings that directly impact public policy of our state occur out of the public eye or ear, our democracy is put in jeopardy," Rosen wrote. "Thus had the court been provided with a legal option to do so, it would have most certainly ordered the BEST team meetings open."

Rosen's ruling rested on the fact that, although Sebelius is more than a private citizen, neither is she the governor, which means she doesn't have the power to appoint task forces by executive order. As it stands, the Open Meetings Act applies only to gubernatorial task forces created by executive orders. This is a loophole Rosen said should be closed.

"If the openness of the decision-making process is an inherently sound democratic principle, is it not equally worthwhile before Jan. 13, 2003, as it is after that date?" Rosen wrote.

A group of Kansas media representatives, including the Journal-World, had sought the ruling, saying the BEST meetings fell under the Open Meetings Act. Sebelius had maintained that open meetings were not required and would hamper the task forces' ability to have candid discussions.

As Rosen noted, that argument "simply misses the point." What ideas would the task forces discuss that wouldn't be appropriate for public consumption? What would task force members say that they only felt safe in revealing in a private meeting? The public might be interested in hearing some candid comments and out-of-the-box thinking on how to solve the state's financial problems. These ideas certainly will have to be discussed in public before they become part of public policy. Why not open the meetings?

The judge's ruling confirms that Sebelius was within her legal right to allow the BEST meetings to be closed. Whether that decision was in the best interests of the Kansas public is another question. It's an aspect of the Open Meetings Act that should be discussed and perhaps changed.

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