Burns boilover: Contention stems from 4 issues
Police chief ordered to clear room after allegedly illegal meeting
Burns mayor Ryan Johnson can’t believe his little town’s council meetings are getting media attention.
A ruckus during a meeting June 8 led to its abrupt adjournment. Johnson called the sheriff’s office, but contrary to initial reports, no one was arrested.
Then, at an adjourned meeting reconvened Friday, he ordered the public removed by the city police chief after what opponents contend was a violation of the state’s open meeting law.
The ongoing contention boils down to four issues — sale of city property to a council member, appointment of a Newton resident to the council, the manner in which meetings are conducted, and a city employee having her pay docked.
Nathan Brenzikofer was appointed to the council after another council member resigned. He resides in Newton but controls property in Burns, where he plans to build a house.
State law requires council members to live in the city and be qualified electors.
According to county elections officer Tina Spencer, Brenzikofer is registered to vote in Burns.
“Owning property does not necessarily qualify them to hold office,” Spencer said.
Brenzikofer’s Burns “residence” is a 1,638-square-foot, three car garage that bears little external resemblance to a house.
Brenzikofer is the same council member to which the city has agreed to sell the second floor of the building that houses city offices and the library.
The sale has been agreed to in principle but has not closed.
Brenzikofer had not yet been appointed to the council when it agreed to sell him the property but would have to recuse himself if and when the sale is closed. He already is removing rubbish from the upper floor of the building, Johnson said.
Brian Castleberry, one of two men who confronted the council last week, said his anger was justified. He and other residents have been unhappy for months.
Fritzie Hatfield, appointed to the council April 13, said she talked to Castleberry to try to calm down agitation.
“I spent an hour last week talking to him civilly and said that if he tells me what his concerns are, I would search out the answers, but he has to be civil at the meetings,” Hatfield said. “It can’t go on. It’s getting violent.”
At the reconvened meeting Friday, 14 residents came to watch.
After an executive session, water operator Robin Basham, whose pay earlier was docked because she forgot to clock out one day and the city didn’t want to pay her overtime, received a check for an amount that she said was for a few dollars more than the $314 withheld from her pay.
Castleberry contends Friday’s meeting, which had only one item on the agenda, was called illegally.
According to state law, a city of the third class, which Burns is, may conduct a special meeting on written request of any three members of the council if the request is read at the meeting and entered at length in the council’s journal. At the beginning of Friday’s meeting, Castleberry said he wanted to hear the requests read aloud.
No requests were read before the council went into a closed meeting. Instead, three requests were read aloud after the session ended and the council reconvened in open session.
Another ruckus ensued, and Johnson had the police chief clear onlookers from the room.
Johnson said the meeting was adjourned as people left, but a video recording provided by Castleberry appears to show the meeting continuing at least briefly while people stood in the hallway. Hatfield left in protest of the ruckus.
Johnson said Monday that requests read after the executive session were written during the executive session, which was called to discuss personnel matters. He said the law didn’t specify when the letters must be written.
Kansas Press Association lawyer Max Kautsch disagreed.
“It is not reasonable for the council to believe that writing the required letters after the special meeting was called somehow made the meeting legal,” he said. “The relevant statute provides that a special meeting may be called ‘on written request of any three members of the council.’ A reasonable interpretation of that language clearly indicates that writing the letters is a precondition to calling the meeting.
“In other words, once the mayor receives the letters, the mayor may choose to call the special meeting. Any other interpretation leads to an absurd result. Moreover, recess to executive session is limited to the subjects and justifications listed in the open meetings law. Writing the required letters is not one of them, and conducting such business in executive session indicates an improper recess.”
A story in print editions of last week’s Record incorrectly stated that an arrest had been made at the June 8 Burns city council meeting. The statement was presumed to be true on deadline because a deputy who was sent to Burns went to the county jail afterward. The Record apologizes for that error.