Archive for Sunday, November 25, 2007

Trust test

Providing a judge or district attorney a tape recording of a disputed executive session would build public confidence in officials’ compliance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

November 25, 2007


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?


Sigmund 8 years ago

Recently Dr. Lester A. Mitscher, a professor of medicinal chemistry at KU, wrote to assure Lawrencians that the Decipheria deal was as advertised and on the up and up. However Dr. Mitscher missed the larger problem, I must take his word for it. This LJW Editorial properly focuses on the lack of trust but suffers from the same shortsightedness and does not go far enough.

If we are to take our Commissioners word for it, Lawrence can no longer maintain sidewalks and streets without raising sales tax rates to the highest in Kansas, increasing real estate taxes, or imposing new taxes on our savings. As taxpayers watch empty city buses mindlessly wander around million dollar roundabouts, lumbering past free fire sprinklers for wealthy downtown landlords, and past the future sites of ice skating rinks and new libraries, even the most trusting of citizens needs to know where, why, and to who their tax dollars are going.

I trust and accept the four commissioners explanations and their apologies for how they handled this matter, but the AG did determined that even though the Mayor was in technical violation of the Kansas Open Meeting statues she won't be held to account. The last time I was caught "technically violating" the Kansas speeding laws I was given ticket and paid a fine. While I don't begrudge the Mayor benefiting from the AG's prosecutorial discretion, I would like to see the inner working of City's operations and finances be reformed to insure such "misunderstandings" do not occur in the future.

Deciphering Deciphera has proven as difficult for ordinary citizens as unlocking the DNA genetic code, or for that matter The DaVinci Code. The multiple layers of private business structures coupled with private executive sessions and the failure of the Mayor to accurately file financial disclosure documents means that taxpayers must trust, but cannot easily verify, what they are told by those entrusted to manage our City. Reform and greater transparency in how our taxes are being used would go along way to rebuilding that trust.

All businesses or individuals that receive the tax dollars should be required disclose all their owners and beneficiaries. While LLC's, LLP's, and partnerships are legal business structures, such structures often makes it difficult to "follow the money" and are bound to lead to wild speculation and suspicion. There is no reason why those that receive Lawrence tax dollars should be unwilling to list all those that directly benefit. Similarly, an outside independent audit of the last five years of Lawrence finances and ongoing yearly audits thereafter would go along way to preemptively quieting the nattering nabobs of negativism, even anonymous ones.

camper 8 years ago

I'm gonna say my imagination has not been stretched. I rule nothing out. Though I agree with the editorial, it does seem a bit "damage control".

camper 8 years ago

"Unfortunately, in this matter, the public can only trust, because there is no way to verify."

The public does not have to trust, nor should they. We should always question. Is this not what Democracy is about?

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