Gardner News covers JCCC open meetings issue


Gardner News covers JCCC open meetings issue

Danedri Thompson

A Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees meeting Feb. 19 raised the ire of Kansas City Star editors after an executive session in which a list of potential budget cuts was presented. Board of trustees chairperson Shirley Brown VanArsdale said the board followed the open meetings statutes, and the list, which was presented as part of college president Terry Calaway’s evaluation, was not discussed during the closed segment of the meeting.

“There was no discussion on the budget,” Brown VanArsdale said. “We were just floored by what happened after the meeting.”

Following the meeting, board of trustees member Benjamin Hodge released the budget-related list to a Kansas City Star reporter. He earned a sharp rebuke from Calaway after a news story about the potential budget cuts, which included eliminating several full-time positions, increasing in child care fees and eliminating health benefits for retirees under the age of 65, appeared online.

“The information that Trustee Hodge took away from the meeting was a piece of information based on my evaluative criteria on protection of college assets,” Calaway said. “He wanted to know what we were going to do related to the budget and then based on that information, be able to evaluate better what my performance had been… While we didn’t discuss any of the items that were on that list, Hodge then took that outside of that meeting and without the context of that meeting, he shared the information.”

Hodge said he released the information to the Star reporter, because the document contained nothing legally sensitive.

In a response letter published online Hodge wrote, “There is not one employee name mentioned. Is the information politically sensitive to a variety of people? Sure, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is whether a reporter had a right to see the information. Can it be debated whether or not a reporter should see the information? Maybe. And that is where I will unapologetically restate my belief that when a government official or a government employee is in doubt about whether or not information should be private, the tie goes to transparency.”

In a letter Calaway sent to JCCC faculty following the meeting, he said the document was developed by college administrators as brainstormed budget-cutting options which had not been prioritized.

“The irresponsible nature of this reporting is exacerbated by the fact that the process under which consideration had taken place as part of a board of trustees’ executive session, during which time a brainstormed list of potential cost-saving measures was discussed,” Calaway wrote. “This “list” is misinformed and without context and is ignorant of the process the college is following to consider budget reductions.”

Hodge said that he didn’t object to the materials being introduced in executive session, because it did not occur to him. However, he added he is under no obligation during executive session to state verbally what is on his mind.

“Once the information was distributed, it could not have been unshared,” Hodge said. “…There is no legal requirement for me to inform the board leadership that they are probably violating the open meetings laws at the very time that they are violating the law.”

In a letter to JCCC, Steve Shirk, an editor at The Kansas City Star, expressed the newspaper’s disappointment in the JCCC Board of Trustees’ broad interpretation of open meetings laws.

“The Kansas attorney general has stated in an interpretation of (Kansas Open Meetings Act)that exemptions are to be interpreted narrowly…We are certain that it was not JCCC’s intention to keep the public from hearing the debate over how the college spends public money. Also, the stated purpose of the executive session, which was clearly announced during the public portion of the meeting, was to evaluate the college president. No mention was made of a list of possible budget reductions,” Shirk wrote. “We would hope that in the future you will adhere to the law regarding open meetings of public bodies in Kansas. Such open discussions are of vital importance to the public interest.”

Calaway said the board has always followed open meetings rules.

“We’re very careful about discussion in executive session,” Calaway said. “We have an exceptionally experienced board, most particularly our chair and vice chair. They truly understand the (KOMA) criteria. We’re very careful about it, which was why there wasn’t any discussion about this material.”