The story of how Republicans representing a majority of the members of various legislative bodies came to be invited to the Kansas governor’s residence for dinner and what they talked about while they were there continues to evolve.
The Kansas Press Association and the Topeka Capital-Journal plan to file a complaint claiming that discussions at the dinners violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The governor’s office says they did not. Whether or not the gatherings fell within the letter of that law, they should be of concern to Kansas residents.
In the days since the dinners came to light, the governor’s office has continued to add to the story in ways intended to deflect any blame from Gov. Sam Brownback. First, the governor’s communications director said there was no problem because the dinners were simply social gatherings.
When it was reported that Senate President Steve Morris had warned legislators at one dinner against violating the KOMA, the governor’s office followed up by saying Morris’ warning was made at the request of the governor, who told guests at all of the dinners that they should avoid discussing legislative business. The governor’s chief counsel also was careful to add that if there were any violations of the open meetings law, it would involve only legislators, not the governor, who is not a “body or agency of the state,” and therefore isn’t subject to that law.
The counsel’s contention is that once committee members were warned, the dinners became “information sessions” at which the governor could say whatever he wished to his guests. Although the governor’s attorney cited a 2009 attorney general’s opinion to justify his stand, a press association attorney pointed out that the opinion involved electronic communication and that applying it to a personal gathering is a stretch.
There also is some dispute about the facts of the case. Some legislators reportedly told the Capital-Journal that legislative issues were discussed at the dinners but didn’t mention being warned about the open meetings law.
According to the governor’s office, seven legislative dinners were held during January. The guest lists were not random. Each of the dinners targeted members of one, two or three specific committees. In all but one case, only the Republican members of those committees were invited. The one Democratic senator who received a dinner invitation didn’t attend because she thought it was a mistake. That seems to be a valid assumption.
In every case, the invited Republicans represented a majority of the committees targeted for the dinner. The KOMA prohibits a majority of a legislative body from coming together and discussing government business without public access or notice. Perhaps the gatherings skirted the law by having the governor state his position on various legislative matters to the committee members, who were warned not to talk about them until they left Cedar Crest, but the dinner meetings still have a sour taste.
If the governor wants to discuss public business with legislative committee members, all of the committee members — not just the Republicans — should be involved, and the discussions should take place in a public setting so the people of Kansas can know exactly what was being said. The Kansas Open Meetings Act is intended to protect that process, as well as the people’s right to know what their government is doing.