Archive for Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Open meetings provision up for renewal tonight

March 4, 2008


City commissioners to-night are expected to routinely renew a long-standing provision that allows two city commissioners to talk privately about city business.

Each year since the mid-1990s, the City Commission has approved a special ordinance that sets the quorum of the five-member city commission at four. Ordinarily, under standard state law, the quorum would be three members. A quorum is the number of members needed to hold a meeting.

The change is significant because the state's open meetings law prohibits a majority of a quorum from privately discussing city business. Thus, a three-member quorum means that two commissioners cannot privately discuss city business. A four-member quorum, however, allows two members to privately discuss city business.

City Manager David Corliss said the change was done in the mid-1990s in an effort to allow commissioners to better communicate outside a public meeting.

"The commission at that time saw value in allowing two city commissioners to be together and discuss the business of the city," Corliss said.

The special ordinance, which requires four votes to be approved, has been routinely renewed ever since. Commissioners, thus far, haven't indicated any opposition to the special ordinance. This year, however, has sparked renewed interest in how commissioners communicate. The state attorney general found the commission violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by improperly conducting a closed-door executive session related to a package of economic development incentives for a startup pharmaceutical company.

The special ordinance is on the city's consent agenda at tonight's meeting, but can be removed if a member of the public or the commission pulls it for debate. The meeting begins at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

In other business, commissioners will:

¢ Receive a report on a proposal by Lawrence Freenet. Freenet previously asked the city to back a $4.9 million private loan that would be used by Freenet to expand its wireless Internet service. In exchange for backing the loan, Freenet is proposing to start a program to provide free wireless service to Lawrence youths. The city also would have use of some of the new fiber optic cable installed by Freenet.

A city staff report - requested by commissioners last month - said there are several major issues with the proposal. Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard wrote that backing the loan could require the city to increase property taxes or come up with some other way to have the cash on hand to immediately pay off the debt, if Freenet and its partners defaulted on the bank loan.

Three commissioners in February said they were concerned about backing a bank loan of a private company. Commissioners Mike Dever and Boog Highberger, however, said they were intrigued by the concept.

Freenet is a competitor in the Internet service provider market with Sunflower Broadband, which is owned by the Journal-World's parent company, The World Company. Sunflower leaders have opposed Freenet's proposal, and have said they would want the chance to bid on any city project designed to increase Internet service in the community.

¢ Discuss issues related to the proposed Bauer Farm development at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. Chief among the topics is a request for a Transportation Development District that would allow the developers to charge an additional 1 percent sales tax to help finance public streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements needed for the development.

Corliss said Monday that staff members aren't ready to endorse that idea. He said more information is needed from the developer on how the project would pay for the improvements if the sales tax does not generate sufficient money to cover all costs.


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