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Archive for Saturday, November 1, 2003

Sebelius’ closed meetings upheld

Appeals Court ruling says Open Meetings Act didn’t apply in transition

November 1, 2003

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— Government review teams appointed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius before she took office did not have to conduct their meetings in public until after her inauguration, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The three-judge panel affirmed Shawnee County District Judge Eric Rosen's ruling that the teams, established by the governor-elect's transition office, were not a state agency as defined by Kansas law. News organizations argued the teams were subject to the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Sebelius created five Budget Efficiency Savings Teams through her transition office shortly after winning the Nov. 5 election. Later, she appointed a sixth team to review education policy.

The appeals court said that even if the transition office were a state agency, the teams were "created by Sebelius individually" and were not part of the transition office.

Rosen issued his ruling Jan. 6 and said Sebelius did not have to open the BEST meetings to the public before her Jan. 13 inauguration.

Paul Stevens, vice president for the Midwest region for The Associated Press, one of the plaintiffs, said he didn't expect the lawsuit to continue.

"While we respect the court's decision, we still maintain that the people's business should be conducted in the sunlight," Stevens said.

Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney representing the news organizations, said the appeals court focused on how the transition office was created, not on how it actually operated. He said it operated as a state agency.

"I think they had an opportunity to interpret the Open Meetings Act liberally, and they didn't take it," he said.

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the lawsuit had no bearing on the relationship between the governor and news organizations. Corcoran said Friday's ruling proved the lower court was correct.

"Hopefully, we can continue to move forward and get things done," Corcoran said. "We tried to keep this as a separate issue. I really haven't seen any repercussions either way. Hopefully we can let it go at that."

The teams held a total of 18 closed meetings in November and December 2002, during Sebelius' transition period, to study how to make government more efficient. The teams became subject to the Kansas Open Meetings Act only when Sebelius took office, the judge ruled.

The lawsuit was brought by The Lawrence Journal-World, The Associated Press, the Kansas Press Assn., the 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.

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