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Archive for Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Small steps

Even small steps to provide more open government deserve applause.

May 21, 2008

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Many Kansans are less than satisfied with the accomplishments of the 2008 Kansas Legislature, but a couple of bills passed in the closing days of the session and signed last weekend by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius are positive steps toward open government in the state.

One will give voters more information about candidates before they are elected and the other should help them keep an eye on public officials after they've taken office.

The campaign finance bill will shorten by a few days the pre-election gap for reporting campaign contributions and expenditures. Currently, no such reports must be filed in the last 11 days before a primary or general election. The new law will require reports that cover the period through the Wednesday before a Tuesday election to be filed by the close of business on the Thursday before the election.

That will allow voters at least some additional information about money being poured into campaigns in their closing days. It seems in this day of instantaneous electronic communication that it would not be unreasonable to require reporting even closer to the election, but the law represents an improvement.

The other new law amends the Kansas Open Meetings Act to prohibit a practice that has become known as "serial meetings." The current law prohibits a majority of a quorum of a body to meet for the purpose of discussing public business. Public officials, however, have sometimes circumvented that law by holding a series of smaller, often one-on-one meetings, that lead to a majority decision occurring outside a public meeting.

It has been argued that serial meetings already violate the spirit of the open meetings law, but the new law specifically spells out that prohibition. Part of the new law also changes the definition of a meeting as "majority of a quorum" to make it the "majority of a body."

For many elected bodies, that will allow more officials to meet together in private. Interestingly, it won't affect the Lawrence City Commission which circumvents the current law by defining a quorum as four members, instead of the standard three, thereby allowing meetings between two commissioners.

The new law may tighten up the open meetings act but it's also a reminder that almost any such act is relatively simple for a public body to violate without detection unless one of its members dissents. The news media or others can try to act as watchdogs, but, in most cases, the public must simply trust that their officials are conducting business in the public eye.

Although many elected officials clearly are worthy of that trust, laws that give voters more timely information on campaign finances and try to ensure that public business is discussed in the open both are positive steps toward making sure the public's trust isn't betrayed.

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