No matter how much they might want to, the members of the Kansas Corporation Commission aren’t allowed to rewrite the Kansas Open Meetings Act to suit their purposes.
Last spring, commissioners evaded public meetings requirements by talking individually with KCC staff to give their approval to a rate increase for a Salina water utility. Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor subsequently filed a lawsuit that suspended the rate decision and alleged a violation of the Open Meetings Act. He then stayed the lawsuit to give the KCC time to review its procedures related to open meetings.
Last week, just days before the DA’s deadline, KCC commissioners responded by adopting a 15-page document outlining how they intended to comply with the Open Meetings Act. The only problem is that their policies apparently still are in violation of the act because they allow for “deliberative meetings” to be conducted behind closed doors.
The KCC regulates utility services within the state and is charged with ensuring that vendors provide adequate service at a reasonable rate for Kansas customers. Allowing discussions about those rates and services to take place outside the public eye could close off important opportunities to inform the public and allow public input. The policy as approved would allow the KCC to hold “deliberative meetings” in private although “any binding decision must occur in a commission meeting.” That means the commission could essentially hold all its discussions and reach a conclusion in private session and simply announce its decision in a public session.
The new KCC policy drew immediate concern from the Citizens Utility Ratepayers Board, the state agency charged with representing the interests of consumers on utility issues. David Springe, consumer counsel for CURB sees the policy as being clearly in violation of state law and plans to formally petition the KCC to reconsider its plans. Springe acknowledged that the KCC does have some authority to function in private as a quasi-judicial body, but considering utility rate issues clearly is a legislative function that is covered by the open meetings law.
Allowing public comment and participation may not always be convenient for government entities conducting public business, but it’s part of the job, and the KCC can’t eliminate that duty by writing a policy. Thanks to CURB for monitoring the activities of this important body and protecting the public’s right to be involved in the business it conducts.