Archive for Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kansas Senate president says he questioned ‘legislative dinners’ that may have violated Open Meetings Act

January 31, 2012, 10:29 a.m. Updated January 31, 2012, 1:55 p.m.


— The Kansas Senate president says he questioned whether so-called legislative dinners hosted by Gov. Sam Brownback throughout January violated the state’s open meetings law, but the governor’s spokeswoman insists there were no violations because the meetings were “social gatherings.”

Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said that on Jan. 9 he was at the governor’s Cedar Crest mansion with members of the Senate KPERS Select Committee and the House Pensions and Benefits Committee. When Brownback suggested the committees “do something” about KPERS, Morris said he quickly warned those in attendance about violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

“I tried to intervene at that particular meeting,” said Morris, the only Republican on the KPERS Select Committee who wasn’t invited to the dinner. “A couple of people tried to say stuff, and I stood up and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ I don’t know about any of the rest of the meetings.”

The Jan. 9 meeting was the first of seven such dinners in January hosted by the governor. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported Tuesday that Brownback’s office provided a list showing that a majority of 13 committees were invited to the dinners, often with two or three committees with related policy missions invited at the same time.

KOMA prohibits a majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice and access.

Morris has been criticized by some conservatives for leading a moderate Senate that has acted contrary to the governor’s wishes on tax and budget issues. He said he was invited to but didn’t attend a Jan. 23 dinner that brought together the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The only Democrat invited to the dinners, Sen. Kelly Kultala of Kansas City, said she didn’t attend because she believed the invitation was a mistake.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the dinners are private and don’t violate state law because they are social gatherings.

“The administration has been and remains in compliance with both the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Open Meetings Act,” she told the newspaper in an email Monday.

That day, she denied an open records request from The Capital-Journal for the names of committee members who attended several of the dinners, saying the governor’s office “did not locate any records of the list of guests.”

Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney who represents the Kansas Press Association and many other Kansas newspapers, including The Capital-Journal, said the scenario Morris described sounds more like a committee meeting than a dinner party.

“Almost every legislative committee meeting is that way,” he said. “All they do is sit there and listen to people present stuff. Yeah, sure, that’s government business.”

Capital-Journal Publisher Gregg Ireland said the newspaper and the KPA will ask Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor to investigate the committee meetings at Cedar Crest to see if state law was broken. Merriam was expected to submit the request to Taylor on Tuesday.

Merriam said it’s a stretch to suggest that the governor would invite related committees to dinner on the same night for purely social reasons. KPA Executive Director Doug Anstaett agreed.

“The argument that these are ‘social gatherings’ is blown out of the water by the fact they were targeted at a majority of the members of specific committees,” Anstaett said in an emailed statement. “Such discussions trigger KOMA if there is not a legislative rule that exempts them. The public has a right to follow the discussion that legislators participate in to understand why this idea or that idea is good or bad. When these discussions are held outside a meeting room, they only serve to reinforce the public’s understandable skepticism about government.”


lawslady 6 years, 4 months ago

Outline on the KOMA by the Attorney General's office.

Social gatherings are not exempt from the KOMA if the "affairs of the body" are discussed at them by a majority of a public body subject to the Act. Fact issues: (1) Were a majority of any public body subject to the Act at these dinners and if so (2) did a majority of them interactively discuss the affairs of the body. If the answer to both questions is "yes," and if the gatherings were not open (i.e. members of the general public could not attend if they wanted), it is a KOMA violation. $500 fine per person/violation.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 4 months ago

Bingo. Get your checkbooks out, ladies and gentlemen.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

That's clearly not enough of a fine to be a serious deterrent to this sort of thing.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 4 months ago

Perhaps, but it's the current law. $500/person/per incident. I don't believe the legislators have coverage for this, so the money comes out of their personal accounts. If they had, for example, five dinners, and get popped, that's $2,500 per person who attended.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

I thought that meant that each person who attended had to pay that - is that wrong?

Who pays it?

In this instance, would it be Brownback?

Paul R Getto 6 years, 4 months ago

I think he'd pay too if found guitly. Here's the portion of the law on penalties: 75-4320: Penalties. (a) Any member of a body or agency subject to this act who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this act or who intentionally fails to furnish information as required by subsection (b) of K.S.A. 75-4318, and amendments thereto, shall be liable for the payment of a civil penalty in an action brought by the attorney general or county or district attorney, in a sum set by the court of not to exceed $500 for each violation. In addition, any binding action which is taken at a meeting not in substantial compliance with the provisions of this act shall be voidable in any action brought by the attorney general or county or district attorney in the district court of the county in which the meeting was held within 21 days of the meeting, and the court shall have jurisdiction to issue injunctions or writs of mandamus to enforce the provisions of this act. (b) Civil penalties sued for and recovered hereunder by the attorney general shall be paid into the state general fund. Civil penalties sued for and recovered hereunder by a county or district attorney shall be paid into the general fund of the county where the proceedings were instigated.

  (c)   No fine shall be imposed pursuant to subsection (a) for violations of subsection (f) of K.S.A. 75-4318, and amendments thereto, which occur prior to July 1, 2009.

  History:   L. 1972, ch. 319, § 4; L. 1977, ch. 301, § 4; L. 2004, ch. 177, § 3; L. 2008, ch. 178, § 3; July 1.

lawslady 6 years, 4 months ago

The only people subject to the KOMA are the members of (each) public body who particpated in a violation. The reason the money is not paid by the entity they serve is b/c the entity itself did not break the law; the individuals do. However, if the members of a public want to fight charges and need/want legal assistance, the entity they serve (in this case the state) often picks up the tab for their lawyers. So it can cost tax payers a whole lot more than the possible fines against individuals.

The KOMA allows the Legislature to adopt rules (not new laws, just a new rule every year) exempting itself, committee by committee, from the KOMA. In other words, the law makers have a loop hole available, if they want to use it - they can just adopt a rule saying the open meeting law does not apply to this year's committees etc. They sometimes do not even bother to do that (it can look bad you know). Rather, the majority of a specific committee can often be seen out and about, "just having dinner" together [good luck proving they were discussing the affairs of the body!], or meeting in back rooms to iron out difference. The KOMA rules apply to every other governmental body in Kansas, per the dictates of Kansas law makers. But those lawmakers themselves? They can (and often do) operate in anything but an open manner.

lawslady 6 years, 4 months ago

One way to hold public bodies more to account, under the KOMA, is to request prior notice of all the meetings of that body. Thus, anyone wanting to know when/where a majority of each each specific committee meets should request such notice (and do it in writing so you can prove you made the request). THEN, if they hold a secret meeting (which can be hard to prove), and they did not provide notice of it, they cannot defend themselves by saying "we would have let anyone listen who wanted to do so!" One has to wonder if any press organization or members (who do not want cut out of other stories) is brave enough to request notice of all the meetings of Legislative committees and subcommitees and then report failures to be open. Wandering around the state house while the Legislature is in session reveals a lot of "informal" conversations (with a majority of a commitee) on bills pending before the commitee members discussing it.

thebigspoon 6 years, 4 months ago

OK, folks, this may just be the trigger to the smoking gun needed to bring recall action against Governor Brownback. Let's hope that this issue is investigated strongly by the press and the Kansas Attorney General's office. Now that would be a real circus, wouldn't it?

This is simply disgusting. Brownback and his henchmen have run roughshod over the state since election and it's time to put a stop to it. He has assumed he can do anything he wants, from executive legislation to executive budget engineering, without review or redress by the public. In a few instances he has been caught with his pants down and there will be more as the citizens, more and more, begin to tell him this is not his kingdom but their state.

Contact your legislators and let them know that this will not be tolerated. Make a stink. Demand that the law be followed and that the State Constitution be the law of the land rather than the Koch Big Money Manual and the Bible as interpreted by Sam's minions.

Centerville 6 years, 4 months ago

“At the beginning of the first dinner, on January 9, Governor Brownback stood up and admonished everyone to keep the requirements of KOMA in mind," said former House Speaker Tim Shallenburger, the governor’s legislative liaison. "The governor went so far as to ask Senate President Morris to assist in ensuring that legislative members not cross that line. 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.”

After a panel discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Library on Tuesday night, Morris, a member of the panel, said Shallenburger’s statement is accurate."

this from the Capitol Journal, where they don't always just reprint what the KDP faxes them.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

And, how do we know that?

It's interesting that after Morris enforced that provision, he wasn't invited to following meetings, don't you think?

mloburgio 6 years, 4 months ago

Sounds like Morris is being left out of more than just a few meetings especially this one.

Business lobby, aided by $36,000 from Koch Industries, targets eight Republican incumbents in state Senate for defeat

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support to challengers of eight moderate Republican senators. Tim Owens, Overland Park; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick; Terrie Huntington, Fairway; Steve Morris, Hugoton; Vicki Schmidt, Topeka; John Vratil, Leawood; Jean Schodorf, Wichita, Pete Brungardt, Salina.

If you take the ba out of Kobach you get a Koch!

Tracy Rogers 6 years, 4 months ago

Sounds like Brownback and Obama have a lot in common. Laws don't apply to them.

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