Kansas attorney general emphasizes importance of transparency, proposes rules for remote public meetings
photo by: John Hanna/AP File Photo
As many official meetings move online due to help stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the Kansas attorney general’s office has proposed formal rules for state and local governments to ensure their meetings remain open to the public.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a recent news release that following the Kansas Open Meetings Act during a declared emergency, when many people are apprehensive and rumors can run rampant, is of even greater important than usual to ensure openness and transparency in the government decision-making process.
“An important way for public bodies to provide reassurance is to go the extra mile to ensure their actions are transparent during the time of emergency,” Schmidt said in the release. “This new guidance will help state and local government bodies throughout Kansas operate transparently even when the public cannot gather in person for meetings.”
The release states whether a public body is meeting by telephone or videoconference or in person but without public access due to emergency limitations, members of the public must be able to observe. Specifically, if the meeting if being done remotely, then members of the public must be able to join in the electronic conferencing. If the meeting is in person, then the public body must take steps to allow members of the public to listen to or observe the meeting by telephone, videoconferencing, television broadcast or similar method. There must be no cost for the public to participate.
When the public is participating in a public meeting remotely, members of the body must take steps to help the public understand the proceedings despite not being physically present. For example, each speaker in the meeting should identify himself or herself by name before speaking or voting so remote listeners or observers can more readily know who is speaking. Likewise, each motion should be clearly stated and each vote tally clearly announced.
In addition, there must be a method for distributing any agenda or other written materials that ordinarily could be picked up in person by members of the public attending the meeting. Those procedures must be explained to the public before the meeting begins. The procedure for any executive session must also be clearly explained at the outset of a meeting.
Schmidt advised public bodies and agencies to immediately begin following the new guidance, although the regulation will not be legally binding until approved by the State Rules and Regulation Board and filed with the Secretary of State. The release states that the proposed regulation was submitted Friday for approval as a temporary regulation and will become legally binding once that approval process is completed.
In addition to the legally binding regulations, Schmidt also provided additional actions that are strongly recommended, such as widely disseminating information about changes to meeting procedures before they occur and posting recordings of meetings on the public body’s website. A copy of the proposed regulation, K.A.R. 16-20-1, and the best practices document are available on the attorney general’s website, ag.ks.gov/open-government.
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