Topeka — Dinners with Republican lawmakers at Gov. Sam Brownback's official residence did not violate the state's open meetings law because he was careful to admonish those attending to avoid discussing legislative business, Brownback's chief counsel said.
Brownback invited Republicans from 13 legislative committees to seven dinners at the Cedar Crest mansion in January, raising questions about whether the gatherings violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings.
Republicans represent a voting majority of every committee in the Legislature. Brownback's staff had said previously that the dinners were strictly social gatherings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
In a statement released Tuesday, the governor's chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, said Brownback was sure to mention KOMA's regulations before each dinner.
"While it would not be possible for the governor to violate KOMA in this situation because the governor is not a body or agency of the state, the governor did remind and admonish everyone present at the beginning of each legislative dinner that legislative committees must be aware of and comply with all KOMA requirements," Stegall said. "The governor and the governor's staff further explained to legislators present that they could not conduct any discussions about committee business during the dinners."
Stegall said once committee members were warned, the dinners became informational sessions, which are allowed under the law. He cited a 2009 opinion from then-Attorney General Steve Six.
Topeka attorney Mike Merriam, who represents the Kansas Press Association and the Capital-Journal, said Six's opinion involved electronic communication. Applying it to a personal gathering is a stretch, he said.
"A member of a public agency isn't complying with the law just because that person says nothing at an illegal meeting," he said. "If one of those members goes to an illegal meeting, it's a violation of KOMA whether they say anything or not."
Some legislators who spoke to the Capital-Journal last week about the dinners said legislative issues were discussed and didn't mention being warned about the open meetings law.
Rep. Lana Gordon, R-Topeka, said House Appropriations Committee members discussed their constituents' concerns about the governor's tax plan when the committee went to Cedar Crest on Jan. 24. And Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, said he "had an opportunity" to discuss a bill with the governor when the appropriations committee was at Cedar Crest but the discussion instead turned to tax policy, Medicaid, school finance and the state budget.
Rep. Jana Goodman, R-Leavenworth, was invited to Cedar Crest with the state's three education committees Jan. 10. When asked Tuesday at what point the governor's staff warned committee members not to violate KOMA, she said "''I don't know. It was certainly before ... "
After a pause, she said "It's not one of those things that was on my radar. I can't say for sure. It's just — they're social things."
Tim Shallenburger, the governors' legislative liaison, said Brownback discussed KOMA at the first dinner on Jan. 9 and also asked Senate President Steve Morris to warn members of his KPERS Select Committee about following the law.
"Senator Morris agreed, and so far as I am aware he succeeded. The governor and his staff have followed this general protocol at each legislative dinner," he said.
Morris on Tuesday said Shallenburger's statement was accurate.
Capital-Journal publisher Gregg Ireland has said the newspaper and the KPA will file a KOMA complaint with Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor.