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Archive for Friday, June 26, 2009

State leaders take refresher course on open meetings law

June 26, 2009

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There are more than 4,000 governmental councils and boards in Kansas that are required to follow the state’s laws regarding open meetings and transparent government.

To some public officials, that is a number that can be both surprising and concerning.

“You have to assume that not all of them are doing it right,” said Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office had the same thought. For the past week, Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six and his staff have been hosting sessions across the state designed to educate government leaders, media members and others on the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

“We want as much sunshine as possible to shine on the business of government,” Six said.

‘First line of defense’

Branson was one of about 90 leaders from the region who attended a session Thursday in Topeka. Douglas County has 39 different local boards — everything from city councils to cemetery boards — that levy taxes and are required to follow the state’s open government laws.

“These issues do come up periodically in Douglas County, and my office is usually the first line of defense,” said Branson, who said his office usually receives one to two complaints a year about a governmental body not following the state’s open meetings law.

Statewide, the attorney general’s office receives about 300 complaints. The attorney general’s office normally conducts about 20 formal investigations, with county attorneys across the state investigating the remainder of the cases.

Concerns about government boards meeting behind closed doors are the most frequent complaints, members of the attorney general’s office said.

Government boards are allowed to meet without the public in a special session called an executive session, but only for specific purposes, attendees were told. Most often, those reasons center on discussion of employee discipline or other similar personnel matters, consultation with the board’s attorney regarding a lawsuit or other similar matter, or discussion of a potential purchase of real estate.

But boards cannot — under any circumstances — take any votes or make any binding decisions in an executive session. Those must always be done in a public meeting. Area government leaders were told that keeping government meetings open was one of the more important responsibilities they have as an elected official.

“The worst thing you can have hang over your head is the aura that you’re violating the open meetings act,” said Kim Winn, director of policy development and communication for the League of Kansas Municipalities.

Training

The law gives the state the ability to fine elected officials and staff members up to $500 a person for violating the law. But Michael Smith, an assistant attorney general, said the more common practice is to require local officials to go through a formal training process to ensure they don’t violate the law again.

That was the path the Attorney General’s office took in late 2007 when the city violated the open meeting law by having an improper executive session related to an economic development deal.

“Most of the violations we deal with are errors just related to not understanding the law,” Smith said. “If there were intentional violations, I think we would look at those and deal with those very differently.”

Elected officials in Douglas County receive various degrees of training in the laws. The Lawrence City Commission after the April election had its legal staff conduct a seminar on the open meetings laws. New members of the Lawrence school board also are briefed on the law as part of a two-day orientation session conducted by staff members. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug meets individually with new commissioners to discuss the law prior to them taking office.

“It is a pretty high priority for me because it is one of those things that can very easily embarrass a well-meaning, new commissioner,” Weinaug said.

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