Archive for Saturday, December 1, 2007

AG: City leaders broke law

Morrison proposes open meetings training for settlement

December 1, 2007


Kansas AG rules against City Commission

Lawrence City Commissioners violated the state's open meetings act - but can avoid prosecution if they agree to admit their errors and pay for two hours of professional training on the open meetings law. Enlarge video

Related document

Open meetings settlement agreement ( .PDF )

City commissioners broke the state's open meetings law by holding a closed-door meeting to discuss granting more than $1 million in incentives to a local company, the Kansas attorney general has found.

But Attorney General Paul Morrison is willing to forgo prosecution if city commissioners agree to admit their wrongdoing and personally pay for two hours of professional training on the open meetings law.

Commissioners will consider accepting the settlement at their Tuesday evening meeting, but all indications on Friday were that commissioners were ready to close the controversial chapter.

"I take responsibility for all my actions," said City Commissioner Mike Amyx. "And I feel responsible to other commission members because of the longevity I've had on this commission."

But the proposed settlement may not bring an end to all questions surrounding the meeting, which took place on Sept. 20 when commissioners discussed an economic development incentives package for Deciphera Pharmaceuticals.

That's because City Commissioner Boog Highberger said he thought Mayor Sue Hack still had more explaining to do about her role in the controversy. Hack was the subject of a separate investigation by the attorney general. That investigation alleged that Hack violated conflict of interest laws by not properly disclosing that she has a financial interest of more than $5,000 in the company.

"I admire Mayor Hack's dedication to public service," Highberger said. "I believe she had no intent to do anything improper. But a serious appearance of impropriety was created here, and I don't think the mayor has done enough to correct that."

The attorney general found that Hack didn't properly complete the necessary forms disclosing her financial interest in Deciphera. But Morrison declined to prosecute the "technical" violation. He also declined to prosecute Hack for participating in the Sept. 20 executive session, although the investigators said it "created the appearance of impropriety."

Hack potentially could have been forced to resign her office if she had been convicted on the conflict of interest matter.

Highberger declined to say what he thought Hack should do to correct the matter.

Hack underwent a minor medical procedure Friday and was unavailable for comment.

Education sought

A spokeswoman with the attorney general's office said it was not uncommon for public bodies to be offered a settlement agreement instead of being prosecuted for open meetings violations.

"Our goal is to educate people so they comply with the law in the future," said Ashley Anstaett, a spokeswoman with Morrison's office.

If prosecuted, individual commissioners would face a civil penalty of up to $500 per violation.

Prosecution is still possible if commissioners don't fully agree to the settlement. Some terms of the settlement include commissioners receiving at least two hours of training on the open meetings act from an attorney. The settlement specifically says the training must be paid for by individual commissioners, and not from public monies.

Commissioners plan to have that training done in a public study session.

No contest

Commissioners and City Manager David Corliss said they respected the attorney general's findings. But commissioners did say they were not trying to ignore the open meetings law when they held the closed-door session.

Instead, they said the violation stemmed from a misinterpretation of the law. To go behind closed doors, commissioners used an exception in the state's open meetings law that allows attorney-client conversations to remain private. But the attorney general's office contends the city improperly employed that exception. That is because Lavern Squier, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, was allowed to attend the executive session. The city contended that was proper because the chamber has a contract to provide economic development marketing services to the city.

But the attorney general's office said "there is no evidence to support" the notion that Squier was a client of the city's attorneys, which voided the claim that the city was meeting to keep the attorney-client conversation private.

Corliss, who served as one of the city's attorneys on the matter, said he accepts the attorney general's interpretation of the law.

"We were in error, and it is an error that won't happen again," Corliss said.

The attorney general did not criticize the city for the content of the executive session, only Squier's attendance. Grassroots Action, a citizens group that filed a complaint about the meeting, alleged the city was discussing policy matters that should have been discussed in open meeting.

In particular, the group was concerned about a never-before-used property tax refund provision that was being offered to the company. The tax refund is similar to a tax abatement, which is required to go through a public review processes. Commissioners never discussed the tax refund program in a public meeting.


matahari 10 years, 5 months ago

maybe next time they could just all call a 'tea party' and meet at Hack's house, as a casual affair? what's the difference?

Richard Heckler 10 years, 5 months ago

When a person is elected or appointed to office each time they are advised or at least receive a packet of information in which an explanation of Kansas Open Meetings Act is included. Not only do elected officials need to be careful so do all appointed positions. This applies to email discussions as well.

"It is very hard to accept that someone who has as much experience in public office as Mayor Hack - six years on the City Commission and two terms as mayor - would "misunderstand" the conflict-of-interest rules. It is still harder to accept that, even if the relevant disclosure laws were not there, the mayor would fail to realize this was a touchy situation. She should not need the AG to tell her participation in the commission's closed-door, executive session where Deciphera was discussed, simply doesn't look right."

The above portion of a letter to the editor applies to all commissioners. It would help if those commissioners who appear to have violated conflict of interest laws would just step down instead of pretending the violation is not really a violation. It is difficult for me to believe none of the commissioners and the Chamber person knew they were in violation of the law. 7of 8 city/county commissioners and the chamber person have way to much experience under their belts : I'm not sure about Dever.

The tax rebate which is not city policy, violation of KOMA and appearance of conflict of interest violations should be enough to put the dicephera matter,not the company, out of business however it is likely personal investments of local movers and shakers that's preventing doing what's right.

blindrabbit 10 years, 5 months ago

Isn't it ironic that the lead story in the JW today concerns the AG's finding of a violation of State Open Meeting stautes because in was attended by a "outside" participant the Chamber President (6th Commissioner, by his own account), and the photograph that appears on page 4D "People and Places". It looks like a rouges gallery of smiley faces; we know at least 5 of the 9 included are at least culpable in the lead story issue.

blindrabbit 10 years, 5 months ago

Lead story comment by Commissioner Highberger that Mayor Sue has more explaining to do is more than obvious. This is not likely to happen, as she has no-doubt retained legal counsel once the story was revealed, I'm sure counsel told her to stay mum on the whole issue. My guess is that it was a testy time aroung the Hack household awaiting the AG's "letting her off the hook" resolution. It is interesting that this advice was not available from the legal expertise in Com. Highberger, City Manager Corless and City Legal Staff.

Does the fact that the AG found that the Commission "Broke the Law" with regard to the open meeting issue give credance to allowing a recall election to go forward. In the past, we were told that there were no grounds for a recall because no "valid reason" was available.

Regardless, I think Spywell is on the right track for hiring a professional City Manager or better yet an elected Strong Mayor. This would be tough though, given the entrenched system we have now with a dis-interested electorate. To accomplish this,the City Commission would have to vote to change the form of Government we cuirrently have in-place. They (Commission) is not likely to go this way; they would be cutting of their own noses.

Godot 10 years, 5 months ago

I did not realize that the AG had the authority to determine guilt and then negotiate a plea bargain. I thought that was the responsiblity of the court.

bill_priff 10 years, 5 months ago

"Highberger declined to say what he thought Hack should do to correct the matter."

I know what Sue can do to correct the matter. She can tell us whether or not she participated in the executive session. She can't hide behind attorney client privilege any more.

Boog knows whether or not Sue participated in the meeting. He was there. Maybe he is giving her a chance to show some "leadership" and admit this on her own. Were any of the commissioners asked about whether or not Sue participated in the executive session?

"The attorney general did not criticize the city for the content of the executive session, only Squier's attendance."

There was no need for the AG to even address the content of the meeting. They violated the KOMA because their stated reason for going into executive session was attorney client privilege and there can be no attorney client privilege when an individual who is not a client of the attorney is present. Every first year law student knows this.

I would like to know what they discussed in the meeting. Now that the AG has determined that there could be no attorney client privilege, Cordless and the commissioners should have no problem telling us all about what was discussed in the executive session.

I would love to see the report of the meeting that Dave prepared for the investigation. Chad, is there any way you could get a copy of that and post it here on the LJW site?

Steve Jacob 10 years, 5 months ago

I have no idea what anyone though the penalty was going to be. Look at the web site that list the past investigations of others in the state. The 2 hour class is the most severe punishment they gave out.

Richard Heckler 10 years, 5 months ago

How about this local mobile tax rebate which is not policy yet can follow Dicephera anywhere in the state of Kansas??

I say pull this project off the table. No tax dollars, rebates or abatements for this project.

Close the local Bio Science Authority account which looks as though it was created for this Dicephera conflict of interest deal to enrich the bank accounts of a very few locals. This 1.5 million could do a lot towards older infrastructure such as sidewalks and at least provide surface material for the eastside hike and bike trail.

Again like the Oread Inn take this project to the bank for complete financing without tax incentives. DON"T sell off that building which likely received tax dollar assistance for any reduced value.

Joe Hyde 10 years, 5 months ago

Perhaps a fair resolution of this issue would be for the City Commissioners to unanimously, in open meeting, reverse themselves and officially withdraw the Dicephera tax rebate that they improperly offered. They could cite a technicality called "at the city of Lawrence's convenience". Such a reversal would be similar to what federal agencies will do sometimes when they terminate a contract based on the government's changing needs.

Doing this takes away the tax rebate from Dicephera, which needs to be done. Doing this demonstrates that the Commissioners acknowledge what they did was wrong. Doing this allows the issue to have a fresh start, a second chance -- this time in an open meeting with public discussion of the tax rebate's long-term benefits to the city.

And to second another personal opinion, what Merrill said: If Dicephera's money-making potential, and Oread Inn's money-making potential, are both so smoking hot, then why don't their proponents simply walk into a bank and apply for a business loan that covers all development/purchase/construction costs?

Richard Heckler 10 years, 5 months ago

"swan_diver (Anonymous) says: Again - why can't a civil suit be filed against the Lawrence City Commission by any interested citizen - or a class action suit filed on behalf of all voters and qualified voters - in lieu of the Kansas Attorney General's slap on the wrist?"

Excellent question. The answer is likely yes to both.

Richard Heckler 10 years, 5 months ago

How is it that a multi-million dollar structure can be owned by DCDI and/or the Chamber of Commerce?

If the chamber owns the building how in the world does a local Chamber of Commerce finance such a project?

How can any organization afford to build a new multi million dollar structure with no tenant signed on ever?

Defixione 10 years, 5 months ago

I just want to get away with not paying my property taxes. Suppose the AG would just slap my wrist?

Godot 10 years, 5 months ago

And where did DCDI get the money to pay $80,000 per year in property taxes for a building with no tenants?

daddax98 10 years, 5 months ago

swan_diver exactly what damages would you sue for. what could the commision do to make the voters whole

Godot 10 years, 5 months ago

"And to second another personal opinion, what Merrill said: If Dicephera's money-making potential, and Oread Inn's money-making potential, are both so smoking hot, then why don't their proponents simply walk into a bank and apply for a business loan that covers all development/purchase/construction costs?"

I think the answer to that is, the spigot for commercial lending was turned off in August. Until the hundreds of billions of dollars of bad loans (not just mortgage subprime, but commercial loans, as well) are written off and accounted for, lending is likely to remain extremely tight. So, for big projects like this, the taxpayers become the lender of last resort.

The commissioners should be asking the question, "In this time of turmoil and uncertainty in the financial industry, why should we risk putting the Lawrence taxpayers on the hook to finance the infrastructure for this purely private venture, particularly when there are so many existing infrastructure needs that are going unmet?"

Maybe the developers should make a quick trip to Dubai to seek funding.

camper 10 years, 5 months ago

I read an interesting wilkipedia description. Go to the site and type "Political Corruption". There is no doubt, corruption is a threat to Democracy....and there is a cost to society.

I was particulary interested in the chapter, Conditions Favorable for Corruption. It pretty much describes many of the same concerns I have read throughout this entire debate. I reference the following points from the Wilkipedia account. They are not necessarily my opinion or in any way related to the Lawrence controversy:

-Lack of governmental transparency (1st on the list) -Red Tape (often used to defend corruption) -Lack of protection for whistleblowers -Weak accounting practices -Tax havens -Large unsupervised public investments -Sale of state owned property -poorly paid governmental officials -Cronyism -Graft -Insider Trading -Bribery -Patronage -Kickbacks -Lack of non-govermental organizations (meant to monitor govt) -Weak judicial independence

On one hand, I don't believe the commision had bad intent, but on the other hand, I can understand the public outcry. This outcry is a necessary control measure to help prevent the above mentioned. If one is concerned, I hardly believe you are deluded or have an active imagination "who sees black helicopters".

justthefacts 10 years, 5 months ago

Godot (Anonymous) says: I did not realize that the AG had the authority to determine guilt and then negotiate a plea bargain. I thought that was the responsiblity of the court.

Godot your comment about it being the court's role to decide what to do about a case merely shows your lack of familiarity with the judicial system. Many cases are decided without going to court, civilly and criminally. The courts (judges) encourage that to happen because otherwise we'd need thousands of more judges and have to spend millions more in tax dollars to get all cases heard by a judge (and/or jury). Plea agreeements, setllement agreements, consent agreements and diversion agreements are all phrases describing out-of-court arragments whereby the necessity to go before a court is avoided. Many potential litigants reach agreement rather then take it before a judge.

In this instance the AG got all the penalaties available under the KOMA (and then some; the KOMA itself says nothing about more education) save one - the fines. Fines are generally not awarded by courts and when they are it is usually in situations where the offendeing public body members fought the charges tooth and nail and cost the tax payers even more $$. By entering into an agreement rather then going to court, the AG and the city commissioners avoided this taking months longer and costing a lot more tax money.

Godot 10 years, 5 months ago

"Godot your comment about it being the court's role to decide what to do about a case merely shows your lack of familiarity with the judicial system." Brilliant deduction!

justthefacts 10 years, 5 months ago

As for a civil suit filed by citizens agains the commission, please see my response on that from yesterday's post on this matter. The short answer is that citizens may file suits against anyone anytime. The likelyhood of winning will depend upon whether there is any legal merit and evidence presented in the case. Oh, and if you file a suit and lose, you may not like the attorney fee sanctions you get (you can be ordered to pay the legal fees for the other parties).

Since the AG has already wrung out all the remedies available (save for a fine) under the KOMA, it is unlikely a judge could or would impose more sanctions under the KOMA. It would be unnecessary and redundant. The KOMA issue is now dead, unless the citizens believe they can find other violations of that Act. In which case they can bring their own action and try to prove to a judge that they have the evidence to prove other violations. But the court will expect the citizen suit to bring forward new evidence, not re-hash what is in the current agreement.

As for other types of suits, if all you have to show is that the deal made with Deciphera is unpopular or a bad idea (in your opinion) that will get quickly booted out of court by a judge. A law suit must be based upon some legal grounds. And disagreeing with a policy decision isn't enough.

justthefacts 10 years, 5 months ago

Example of suits that would lose: Your honor, my neighbor is ugly. Your honor, I think roses should have no thorns. Your honor, there has been far too much rain lately. Your honor, I need a better car.

Funny? Not really. People sue to get something they want. But there are not laws giving evgeryone their hearts desire. Courts will only allow a suit to go to a trial if there is some law or legal duty that is involved. You must want something to happen that a judge is authorized (by law) to order. Courts are not magic places there to grant all wishes.

Kontum1972 10 years, 5 months ago

dave corliss, his comment really sucks....this guy claims to have a Law Degree and i think it is from KU, so was he out of class that day or that week? His comment is null, we pay this clown 6 figures so he should be really on top of what he does. I think the whole commission should resign and they should do some time with a heavy fine, and they should never be able to run for office in kansas anymore. If I would of done this they would not think twice of throwing the book at me and I am just an average joe. They are all a bunch of self- serving greedy schmucks and they do not give hoot about Lawrence or the rest of us hard working citizens..they are only concerned about how FAT they can make their wallets, and they place themselves above the Law...I think we should run them out of town, and confiscate their property and assets. How can we ever trust these people again? How are "they" going to walk down the streets of Lawrence and not have someone tell them exactly what they think of them? I am not a big fan right now. They should be ashamed of their actions.

Kontum1972 10 years, 5 months ago

Quote: Harry Truman-----> THE BUCK STOPS HERE!

Godot 10 years, 5 months ago

Does this plea deal specify that the admission of wrongdoing not be followed by ".....but...."?

texburgh 10 years, 5 months ago

This is what Lawrence gets when they vote in commissioners who are subsidiaries of the developers. Fritzel gets whatever he wants; no questions asked. We taxpayers get to pay for road work leading to his new hotel while our neighborhood streets fall apart. He gets the profits, we get the bills. The chamber of commerce gets to seat people at executive sessions of the city commission but regular old tax-payer types get locked out while our tax dollars are given away. And even if the chamber exec had not been in the room, haven't I read in the paper that Sue "what Deciphera stock?" Hack works for the Chamber? The rest of us don't have a chance. By the way, despite the LJW's constant attacks on smart growth commissioners like Rundell and Schauner, it was never found that they gave away our tax money in secret sessions or voted on deals where there was a conflict of interest. You get what you pay for and the developers paid plenty in the last election.

camper 10 years, 5 months ago

Does anyone know why we need a chamber of commerce? I have heard of the organization, but never really knew what they did. I think we could probably get rid of it and the globe will still keep spinning. I don't think anyone would notice the difference.

Kontum1972 10 years, 5 months ago

the chamber of commerce is a joke...a real joke...i was a member for a couple years and they did not do a damn thing for me and my business and being of ethnic origin and not a WASP I was ignored so I never returned..and their christmas party what a hoax..... I got the big snub there too! just a fancy club,,,nothing more!

what is wrong with all of these people who run our city government..isnt there some kind of loyality oath they swear too when they assume the position? it is real easy to say ..well we didnt realize it would be wrong....and there is Corliss with his stinking law degree..isnt he suppose to stop this kind of crap and raise the red flag on this type of policy or actions?

camper 10 years, 5 months ago

"Squier was responsible for writing a memo to commissioners summarizing the background of the deal. That memo did not mention the tax rebate or the cash incentives for job creation. But again, Squier said he wasn't asked by the city to provide detailed information. Instead, he said Corliss asked him to keep the background memo under a page in length"

blackwalnut 10 years, 5 months ago

The only way to make this right with the city of Lawrence is for Mayor Hack to step down, reveal her true financial interest in the company including when she invested and how much she paid, and the deal with Deciphera to be rescinded.

If Deciphera wants to do business with the financial help of the city, let them start over and keep the process clean.

Mayor Hack and her friend spoiled it.

Terry Jacobsen 10 years, 5 months ago

Boog HIghberger isn't any better than the others. That dirty cheat, participated too and then tries to point the finger at the others. Pathetic!!

RomanNose 10 years, 5 months ago

How much trouble would a person get into for stealing a TV?

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