Letter from Star informing JCCC telling college to follow Kansas Open Meetings Act

Source: http://www.redcounty.com/johnson/2009/03/open-meetings-laws-and-jccc-a/

Letter from Star informing JCCC of proper KOMA interpretation
Posted by: Benjamin Hodge | 03/12/2009 5:00 PM

The following is the text of a document faxed by The Kansas City Star to the president’s office at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, March 5. It’s a one-page letter from Steve Shirk, The Star’s managing editor, explaining to JCCC President Dr. Terry Calaway and the 6-member JCCC Board how The Star believes the Kansas Open Meetings Act should be interpreted. The Star makes it clear that it believes JCCC violated the law.

President Calaway waited until sometime on Friday, March 6, to share the document with Board Chair Shirley Brown-VanArsdale. VanArsdale and Calaway did not share the letter with the entire board until Monday morning, March 9. They should not have waited that long.

Chair VanArsdale has made no public comment with regard to any of this.

Calaway continues to go out of his way to remind the public about how he chooses to interpret KOMA; that does a disservice to JCCC and the Board of Trustees.

In my opinion, The Star would have not likely written this letter had Dr. Calaway not dug a hole for himself and the college a couple days earlier when he wrote an Email to JCCC employees. In the March 3 Email, he implicitly did the following:

1. Calaway criticized my release of general budget-related information that was (and, most people believe, should not have been) shared originally in an executive session closed to the public. I chose to share the information with Star reporter Jim Sullinger after Sullinger had requested information regarding how JCCC would be handling its next budget.

2. Calaway called Sullinger unprofessional for the way that Sullinger’s initial reporting was done. Sullinger is a 30-year veteran reporter.

3. Calaway unapologetically stated that the information was first given to board members in executive session. In doing so, he publicly justified a bad interpretation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. That justification was a major error by Calaway.

Near the very beginning of a 2008 Kansas Attorney General opinion, the following is written: “The act is interpreted liberally and exceptions narrowly construed to carry out the purpose of the law.” Calaway admitted to 2,000 employees that he interprets KOMA as allowing JCCC to broadly (not narrowly) interpret the exceptions to the law.

Shortly after that is when I’m guessing that wheels started turning at The Star. The Star faxed this letter and ran a prominent story in the Sunday print edition.

At the top right is a copy of the one-page fax (click to enlarge). To my knowledge, VanArsdale and Calaway have yet not made this letter available to the public. If you would like a higher-quality copy, contact JCCC at 913-469-8500, press “0” and then ask for the president’s office. When you’re directed to the president’s office, you may request a copy (they might charge you a small fee). You may also choose to ask why the president opts not to make the document available on the college Web site.

The text of the letter:

March 5, 2009

To: JCCC President Terry Calaway,

College Board of Trustees: 

From: The Kansas City Star

Dear President and Trustees:

We at The Star were disappointed to learn that budgetary issues were addressed in an executive session of the college’s Board of Trustees on Thursday, Febrary 19, 2009. Clearly, there must have been a misunderstanding of what is permissible under the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

The Kansas attorney general has stated in an interpretation of KOMA that exemptions are to be interpreted narrowly. Under the exemption for the discussion of non-elected personnel, we would remind you of the attorney general’s opinion of the following section of the Act:

Personnel matters of non-elected personel

1. To discuss an individual, not groups. (AG Opins. No. 81-39; 88-25; 80-102. But sec 13 Kan.App.2d 117 (1988)). The purpose of this exception of to protect the privacy interests of individuals. Discussions of consolidation of departments or overall salary structure is not a propert topic.

2. “Personnel” means employees of the public agency.

No name of an individual was among the 50 or so possible budget reductions presented to the Board of Trustees in that closed session. The items on the list affected groups and many of these items are paid for by taxpayer dollars. 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.

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.

Thank you for your attention to this matter,

Steve Shirk
Managing Editor