Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Senate approves bill that would make local governments disclose more before they hold closed-door sessions

March 17, 2017

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— The Kansas Senate passed a bill Thursday night that would require city councils, county commissions and other governing bodies to give clearer explanations of their reasons whenever they meet in closed-door executive sessions.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who chairs the Federal and State Affairs Committee, were the main sponsors of Senate Bill 70, which cleared the Senate on final action Thursday by a vote of 39-1.

It would require that governing bodies reflect in their minutes more clear explanations of the reasons given whenever they meet in closed-door sessions.

Under the Kansas Open Meetings Act, governing bodies may meet behind closed doors to discuss certain confidential matters such as pending litigation, matters related to non-elected personnel, or issues that might involve trade secrets of private companies.

When boards and commissions go into executive session, the law requires someone to make a motion, citing which exception to the Kansas Open Meetings Act they are using to justify it. Often, however, when the minutes of those meetings are written, they only reflect that a motion was made, but do not specify the specific reason for the motion.

The bill enjoyed broad, bipartisan support from the start. The Kansas Press Association, the League of Women Voters of Kansas and several other open-government advocates supported the bill as well.

But it nearly ran into trouble on the floor of the Senate when Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley offered an amendment that was intended as a criticism of Senate Republicans.

His amendment would have prohibited party caucuses of the House and Senate from closing their caucus meetings to the press. Most of those meetings have been open to the press, but the Senate Republican caucus has been more prone than others to close its caucus meetings, most recently in late February when it met in a building outside the Statehouse.

That ignited a partisan debate during which Hensley said the Democratic caucus had never closed its doors in all the time he has been Minority Leader. But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, argued that the majority caucus is the one under pressure to pass legislation, and sometimes its members have more need to discuss things frankly and confidentially among themselves.

Hensley's motion failed, 9-28. Two Republicans joined seven Democrats in supporting the motion. Sens. Francisco and David Haley, D-Kansas City, voted "pass" on the motion. Francisco said she hadn't been informed until just before the Senate session that evening that Hensley intended to offer the motion.

The Senate then voted 39-1 to pass the bill and send it to the House. Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado, was the only senator who voted no.

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