Open meetings laws and JCCC: a review of the last two weeks – Hodge at Red County


Open meetings laws and JCCC: a review of the last two weeks
Posted by: Benjamin Hodge | 03/12/2009 4:00 AM

To review, after being asked for JCCC budget-related information by Kansas City Star reporter Jim Sullinger, I decided to provide the most recent information I had. It had been handed to me in a closed session dedicated mainly to personnel issues, but Sullinger and I agreed that the budget information was entirely non-sensitive (meaning it contained no employee names, etc). Four to five sheets of paper listed about 50 ways to balance the budget at JCCC. They were ideas — not formal proposals — merely considerations of possible cuts. They were not prioritized in any order of importance. At any rate, most people at the college already knew that most ideas were “on the table.” Shortly after I provided it to Sullinger, he reported a summary of the information on The Star’s Prime Buzz blog.

There was much overreaction by a few people at JCCC. On March 3, the college president wrote an Email to all 2,000 college employees informing them that the budget information was handed out to board members during executive session. The president implicitly criticized me for sharing the information; this was unfair because I believe that the non-sensitive budget information was more appropriate for distribution during an open meeting. In the Email, the president also effectively called the veteran Star reporter unprofessional.

Though knowing I had made the correct decision to share the information with the reporter, the level of news interest and activity was undesirable for the simple reason that I am on the ballot in a few short weeks. I knew that eventually everybody would learn the full story (a non-story, really), but I didn’t know how long it would take.

As it turns out, I’ve learned that adherance to open meetings laws is a very big deal to The Star. And, now that JCCC had publicly justified a broad interpretation of The Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) and insulted a reporter in the process, The Star decided to get involved. The Star faxed a letter to JCCC on Thursday, March 5, to scold the college. It published a story on the JCCC/KOMA issue in that Sunday’s print edition.

The Johnson County Sun became interested and ran a fair assessment of the situation. Blogs picked the story up. I am aware of at least two more sources that will provide a full report in the near future.

To add to all this, because of the inadequacy of Kansas’ ethics laws, I learned that if I chose to reply/explain to college employees via the same college-wide Email list used first by the president, to avoid liability the college would provide all of my opponents (9 of them in a vote-for-4 election) with the same format. I’m going to hope that the president didn’t know about these limitations, regarding my options of communicating with employees, until after he had Emailed his March 3 reply to the college, and until I had requested an opportunity to reply. Through no fault of the college administration, Kansas laws are virtually silent on issues relating to campaigns for K-12 and college school boards (there are no individual contribution limits, for example). Because the state provides no guidance, the county election office presides over JCCC election-related questions. The advice of the election office’s attorney was that the JCCC administration provide “equal time” to my opponents if I were to choose to communicate through the college Email list.

I think most people that are aware of the situation now know the complete picture, and that’s a relief. I’ve received encouragement and compliments from a Star editorial board member, a South Dakota blogger who is a Democrat, a member of the Kansas Press Association, and friends on Facebook. I thank all.