The outcome of a monthslong investigation into dinner meetings at Gov. Sam Brownback’s residence was received with mix reactions across the state.
Some were angry and disappointed that lawmakers were not charged with violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Others were glad no one was prosecuted, and still others didn’t care one way or another.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor was able to confirm that the governor discussed a considerable amount of business and strategy with legislators — all Republicans, who were invited according to the committees on which they served — but he concluded that none of the attending legislators “committed a substantive violation of KOMA.” Rather than pursue any prosecution, Taylor recommended “comprehensive training on KOMA” for state legislators, for whom ignorance of the law is apparently at least a partial defense.
Although none of the lawmakers will be prosecuted, there are aspects of this situation that should concern Kansans and cause them to increase their vigilance concerning the conduct of state business behind closed doors.
Taylor reported that his investigation of the meetings was hampered by the fact that most of the legislators who were questioned had what the DA referred to in his report as a “collective inability to remember specifics” about any of the dinners they attended. They couldn’t remember what issues were discussed or who discussed them. They remembered that the meetings included question-and-answer sessions with the governor, but they couldn’t remember who posed questions or any of the topics of those questions.
Really. Even if there was a cocktail hour before dinner, it’s hard to believe that so many legislators were a total blank about what the governor, the elected leader of their party, had to say about any issues on the legislative agenda.
Taylor did find a couple of legislators who had a clearer memory of one dinner to which KPERS committee members were invited. While, again, most legislators “could not remember anything specific” about the meeting, two members recalled that Brownback asked Sen. Jeff King to discuss the reform plan his KPERS commission was working on. After King’s presentation, they said, Brownback told members he wanted to see a bill based on those recommendations on his desk by the end of January. During a Q&A, Brownback was asked about his strategy for passing the legislation, the lawmakers said, and, although Senate President Steve Morris warned the group that it might be straying toward a KOMA violation, the conversation soon returned to specific strategy for passage of the KPERS legislation, which would be handled directly by committee members in attendance.
This is the kind of situation that should be of real concern to Kansans, especially in light of the likely prospect that by next January both houses of the Kansas Legislature will have conservative majorities whose legislative priorities are closely aligned with those of the governor. It would be tempting and far too easy for like-minded lawmakers and the governor to discuss important state business and policy outside the public view.
The whole point of the Kansas Open Meetings Act is to make sure those discussions take place not behind closed doors or at private dinners parties but in the open where news media and the public can know what kind of laws and policy changes their elected state and local officials are talking about. Maybe they can even help jog the memories of some of the legislators who went to dinner with the governor.