When it comes to monitoring the activities of our elected officials, it seems appropriate to follow former President Ronald Reagan's advice on dealing with the Soviet Union: "Trust but verify."
We want to trust our elected officials - and, usually, we do - but occasionally it would give members of the public comfort to be able to verify that their trust is warranted. The recent executive session at which the Lawrence City Commission discussed a deal with Deciphera Pharmaceuticals is such a case.
Unfortunately, in this matter, the public can only trust, because there is no way to verify. It's exactly the kind of situation that could benefit from legislation requiring executive sessions to be tape recorded.
The Kansas attorney general was asked to examine two aspects of the Deciphera executive session. One was whether Mayor Sue Hack's attendance at the session constituted a conflict of interest because she has invested in Deciphera. The other was whether the commission, as a whole, discussed portions of the Deciphera agreement in private that should have been discussed in a public meeting.
Last week, the AG's office said it had interviewed city officials and determined that although Hack's attendance at the session created an "appearance of impropriety," "there is no evidence that Mayor Hack participated in this meeting other than by her attendance."
Although it stretches the imagination of some members of the public, it's entirely possible that Hack sat silent throughout the executive session, but the only evidence of that is the statements of others at the meeting. If a tape recording of the meeting existed, that account could be easily verified by the attorney general's office.
When asked after the AG's announcement about the possibility of recording executive sessions to provide a record, Hack said she would oppose such a move because it might allow sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands. That seems unlikely, however, if tapes were carefully handled and destroyed after a reasonable time period.
Another way to look at it is to weigh the small risk of privileged information being revealed against the public interest of monitoring the proper use of executive sessions by elected officials. The public interest seems far more important.
A recording law would have to be narrowly focused to apply only to elected bodies and to provide access to those tapes only when an official open meetings complaint is filed. The tapes would be released only to an authority such as a district attorney, attorney general or judge, who would be responsible for determining whether the law had been violated.
It seems that officials who understand and abide by the laws governing executive sessions would have no reason to oppose the taping of those sessions. If a tape ever was turned over to legal authorities, it would simply verify they acted properly and increase trust among their constituents.
Lawrence residents now are awaiting the AG opinion on whether the commission's closed discussion on Deciphera was within the law. That opinion will be based on the accounts of those who attended the executive session and who also have a vested interest in being found in compliance with the law. Without tape recordings, we have no choice but to trust those accounts - but wouldn't it be better to be able to verify?