AG: City leaders broke law

Morrison proposes open meetings training for settlement

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.