Archive for Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Earning the trust

Public officials with nothing to hide should have no objection to a law that would provide a way to monitor executive sessions.

February 28, 2006


Members of the public really have no way of knowing what elected officials discuss when they go behind closed doors for an executive session.

All they can do is trust the members of their city commissions, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies to abide by the law. Most of the time that trust is well placed. Unfortunately, it occasionally is not.

That's why it is disappointing that Kansas legislators have turned aside a bill that would have given the public a tiny window on closed executive sessions. It's a window that would seldom be used but would increase the public's confidence in their elected representatives. However, it provided too much of a breeze for legislators who found themselves under attack by lobbyists for cities, counties and school districts and decided to slam it shut.

The bill would have provided, under very limited circumstances, for executive sessions to be tape recorded. A tape recorder would only be turned on at the request of a member of the body who questioned whether the matters being discussed were covered by exceptions to the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Those exceptions include sensitive topics such as personnel, land acquisitions or pending litigation.

The recording then could be reviewed by a judge to determine whether officials had complied with the open meetings law. If any violations are found, that portion of the tape would be made public and could be used as a basis for a criminal complaint. If no violation occurred, the tape would remain private.

The mere possibility of a tape recording probably would eliminate most violations by raising officials' awareness, but the proposal also provides an important avenue for an official who may find himself or herself in the minority concerning an open meetings question. As the law now stands, an official might question a discussion but, if it continued, could do little to stop a suspected violation. Under the proposed legislation, any official who questions a discussion could have it recorded and supply an accurate record of the conversation to a judge for review.

Rather than being an intrusion, taping executive sessions actually would be a protection for public officials. Taping would ensure that conversations weren't misrepresented and officials falsely accused. Any question about the nature of a conversation could be resolved by the tape.

It's hard to understand why public officials would feel threatened by this legislation, but apparently some are. The measure was approved by a House committee but that may be as far as it goes this session. Under pressure from lobbyists and worried about making legislators vote on the measure in an election year, the House leadership has bottled up the bill and effectively killed it for this year.

Such ducking of a reasonable measure to assure compliance with the state's open meeting laws shouldn't go unnoticed by Kansas residents. We have every reason to trust the vast majority of our public officials to comply with restrictions on executive sessions, but we also have a right to have at least a minimal way to make sure that trust is justified.


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