Flint Hills Center for Public Policy
Attorney General to Rule on Open Meetings Question
Kansas Attorney General Steve Six will issue an opinion on potential abuses of an exemption to the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) to hide budget discussions from the public.
An August 21 letter signed by a bipartisan group of four legislators asks Six for his opinion on the correct interpretation of an exemption to KOMA allowing closed or executive sessions to discuss personnel matters of non-elected personnel.
Representative Anthony Brown (R-Eudora), in a Sept. 2 press release, said, “I am asking the Attorney General to offer an opinion that opposes any and all efforts to have detailed discussions about taxation or any government entity’s budget, when the discussions are both closed to the public and involve a majority of elected officials.”
Brown said he expects the Attorney General to “agree that transparency is critical in maintaining trust in any governing body.”
In a phone interview Friday, Sept. 5, Brown said he believes some local government officials are abusing KOMA exemptions intended to protect privacy in personnel matters to conduct budget discussions outside the public view.
Brown laid out a hypothetical situation he believes happens in Kansas. “Let’s say our City commission wants to talk about raising taxes or fees and they want to do it behind closed doors. So the pretense is, ‘Lets talk about our city manager and his role, that’s a personnel decision.'”
Brown said about 45 minutes after issuing his press release someone from Leavenworth contacted him with information about similar behavior by commission members. From January 2007 to June 2008 at least two dozen complaints pertaining to executive sessions were filed with the Kansas attorney general’s office or county attorneys.
“I want to see how Steve Six is going to rule on this,” Brown said in the interview. “If he rules that nothing inappropriate is being done or that it’s well within their purview then any future legislation doesn’t seem to be all that necessary – if the chief law enforcement officer isn’t going to back you up on that anyway.”
Ashley Anstaett, director of communications for the attorney general, confirmed Friday that Six’s office will issue an opinion in response to the request signed by Brown and three other legislators: Rep. Owen Donohoe (R-Bonner Springs), Rep. Lana Gordon (R-Topeka) and Sen. Chris Steineger (D-Kansas City).
The attorney general’s office will research the issue and seek comment from interested parties before issuing an opinion, probably in a few weeks, according to Anstaett. Opinions from the Attorney General have the force of law.
The letter to Six asks, “whether it is legally permissible for a local government to engage in detailed budget-related or tax-related discussions, during the course of an employee evaluation that includes the topic of the manner in which the non-elected employee appropriates public dollars.
“Stated another way: Under KOMA, if the main purpose of a closed meeting is for public officials to evaluate the performance of a local government employee, and if this employee is evaluated on his or her budgeting skills, in what level of detail may the budget be discussed by the local government body during the closed meeting, and in what manner should detailed budget-related documents be treated?”
The opening paragraph of the KOMA statute states, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”
For more information:
Previous story on open meetings and open government in Kansas:
Kansas Open Meetings Act:
Paul Soutar is an Investigative Reporter with the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. A complete bio on Mr. Soutar can be found at http://www.flinthills.org/content/view/6/5/, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Flint Hills Center, please visit http://www.flinthills.org.