Topeka 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.”