President of KU student group files open meetings complaint against university over lack of access to pandemic meetings

photo by: Associated Press

Sidewalks are empty around Strong Hall in the middle of the University of Kansas campus In Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Classes are not being held while moving online due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

A student leader has filed a complaint with the Kansas attorney general alleging the University of Kansas is improperly keeping the public out of key meetings on how the campus will operate during the pandemic.

Wes Cudney, leader of the student group Against Rising Tuition at KU, said he believes the Kansas Open Meetings Act allows members of the public to attend meetings of KU’s Pandemic Medical Advisory Team, which meets regularly to discuss pandemic-related matters, including whether the Lawrence campus should remain open.

Cudney filed his complaint with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt nearly two weeks after the Journal-World reported that KU declined to answer whether the meetings were open to the public, and that the university was not keeping any minutes of the meetings.

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Since that article was published, a top KU official has determined the meetings are closed to the public. Julie Murray, the chief of staff to KU Chancellor Douglas Girod, told Cudney in an email, which he provided to the Journal-World, that PMAT was an advisory committee only and has no decision-making authority.

“Therefore, the meetings are not public meetings,” Murray wrote.

Cudney said he wasn’t pleased with the response, which pushed him to file the formal complaint.

“I found that absurdly sketchy. I thought, ‘Why does the chancellor want the press out of these meetings? What in these meetings do they not want the LJW to know?'” he said. “The public needs to be in these meetings. (KU) needs to comply with the law.”

Murray’s response hinges on the group not having any decision-making authority. But as reported earlier this month, the Journal-World obtained emails from Girod that indicate the group does have decision-making power.

Just one day before its creation was announced publicly on June 29, Girod, who is also on the committee, indicated that the team would actually have decision-making abilities. In similar emails sent to the other eight PMAT members, the chancellor said that part of the weekly team call would involve “making a determination” as to whether KU needed to adjust its plans moving forward.

Most notably, Girod also told PMAT members that in a “worst case scenario” the team would need to determine whether to close KU campuses and move once again to remote learning, the newspaper reported.

Other educational institutions also have faced complaints over a lack of transparency in the decision-making process around pandemic restrictions. Max Kautsch, a Lawrence-based lawyer specializing in First Amendment law and government transparency, previously told the Journal-World the KU matter is similar to a dispute in the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County. Parents there have sought access to a committee made up of health professionals who are making determinations about school reopening plans.

Kautsch said the KU situation is more problematic because Girod — the ultimate decision-maker at KU — sits on the KU board in question. Kansas’ open meetings law requires meetings involving public agencies — which KU is — that relate to the business of that agency to be open to the general public. KOMA also requires that any subordinate committees (for example, committees that have a singular focus or task) related to that agency be open to the public as well.

Earlier this month, the university disputed claims it was violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman from the university did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment on the complaint.

Cudney said he has not yet received a response from Schmidt’s office. Organizations found in violation of the Open Meetings Act most commonly are required to take corrective actions, such as training on state transparency laws. The law, however, does allow for fines up to $500 for each violation.

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