The Baldwin City Council has entered into an agreement with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to cease violations of the state’s open meetings law and to receive training to prevent future transgressions.
The City Council entered into an Oct. 5 consent order with the attorney general’s office, which found that council members Christi Darnell, Kathy Gerstner and Dave Simmons engaged in serial communications outside of a public meeting setting. The agreement was the result of a state investigation of possible open meetings violations that Baldwin City Mayor Marilyn Pearse had reported in July.
The conversation in question involved the three council members’ opposition to Pearse’s June nomination of Shane Starkey to fill the unexpired seat of Councilman Stephen Bauer, who was killed along with his wife, Alison Bauer, in a car wreck in May.
In interviews with the Journal-World, Darnell and Simmons said they were part of serial conversations involving the nomination.
“We do not dispute that,” Simmons said. “I apologize for my mistake. We made a mistake and owned up to it. I learned from it, and I’m a better councilman from what I learned.”
Darnell said all three council members cooperated with the attorney general’s office and reported their part in the serial conversations.
“I take full responsibility and was profoundly embarrassed once I became aware of the violation,” she said.
Pearse said she reported to the attorney general conversations that she had with the three council members about their opposition to Starkey's appointment. Darnell, Gerstner and Simmons used the same language and raised the same objections, she said, which tipped her off to a possible violation of the open meetings law.
During that same time, she and city staff were in conversations with the Kansas League of Municipalities’ legal counselor about the process of filling an open seat on the City Council, Pearse said. It was the League’s legal counselor who suggested in July that she report Darnell, Gerstner and Simmons for engaging in illegal serial conversations, she said.
Pearse said she thought the three council members acted out of an emotional response to the loss of their friends the Bauers and not out of malicious intent.
An open meeting violation occurs when a majority of a governing body meets outside of a publicly scheduled meeting to discuss government business. A "serial communication" doesn't involve those members meeting together in one place but occurs when a series of conversations, taken together, involve a majority of members.
The attorney general office’s also found that the Baldwin City Council went into a March 17, 2017, executive session without stating the justification for the closed-door discussion. Pearse and the members of the Baldwin City Council agreed in the consent order to get an hour of training on the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act within the next three months.
Simmons, whose term on the council expires in January 2020, said he has already completed the required training. Darnell and Gerstner, whose terms expire in January, are not running for re-election.
Pearse withdrew Starkey’s nomination in July, and the City Council approved her July nomination of A.J. Stevens to the unexpired term. Starkey, who served on the council from 2011 to 2015, remains one of five candidates running for Darnell's and Gerstner's current seats.
Simmons said the incident would not prevent him from working with Starkey should he be elected to the council.
“I will work with anyone the people of Baldwin City elect,” he said.
Jennifer Montgomery, public information officer for the attorney general’s office, said that this year the attorney general has found three public bodies in violation of the state’s open meeting law and two public entities in violation of the state’s open records act. Those violations and the Baldwin City consent agreement can be viewed on the attorney general’s website at ag.ks.gov/open-government/enforcement-actions.