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  • Last modified 320 days ago (July 14, 2023)

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Open, closed, or stuck in the middle

Less than three weeks after receiving free training by an expert on governmental openness, Marion’s city council appears poised to spend $500 for a second session that could violate the laws it is supposed to explain.

The first batch of training by Max Kautsch of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government was well-received by most of the 20 or so who attended. Retired judge Mike Powers even asked afterward whether it might qualify for continuing education credit that lawyers such as him are required to obtain.

Some apparently didn’t like it, however. Among them were Mayor David Mayfield and council member Zach Collett, who caused the original presentation to be truncated by interrupting to protest that he thought it was supposed to be half an hour shorter.

Part of the problem appears to be that the presenter emphasized reasons for laws that require nearly all records and meetings to be open.

What he didn’t stress was how such laws might be skirted to avoid giving members of the public free and unrestricted access to what government is doing on their behalf with their money.

Laws are clear: Documents and deliberations by people entrusted with taxpayer money are by default open and available to all. Only in relatively unusual and very specific circumstances can officials meet behind closed doors or refuse access to information in their possession.

Rather than try to get into the spirit of what’s supposed to be a shield for democracy, some local officials persist in trying to use it as a sword that allows them to revel in perceived glory as specially privileged citizens.

When the law says they have up to a certain amount of time to respond, they always wait until the last minute. When it says they may — but aren’t required to — charge, they always charge. When they want to exclude the public, they look for the vaguest justification rather than one that will provide the most information without violating necessary confidentiality.

That’s what training from our state’s burgeoning number of associations of governmental units seems to emphasize.

After a training session earlier this year by the state school board association, the Centre school board came away with a misconception opponents of openness often use to criticize the law — a mistaken belief that the law means they can’t sit together at sports events. They can sit with whomever they want. They just have to invite the public whenever a majority of them are discussing official matters.

The board again demonstrated its misunderstanding last week when it shut the public out of discussions about contract negotiations. It’s perfectly fine for members to close their doors in such situations. The law recognizes that governments may need to think about negotiating or legal strategies without tipping off their opponents in talks or trials.

What Centre did wrong was to say it was keeping the public out to protect the privacy of individuals involved.

“Protecting privacy” has become the “gluten free” of discourse regarding public bodies. It also was used last week by Marion’s police chief in discontinuing a 60-year tradition of providing information about officers’ daily activities. Even his own officers pointed out that such reports never named anyone, but “protecting privacy” still was used as an excuse, just as you see ads for “gluten free” products that never have and never will contain gluten.

Marion now wants to get training similar to Centre’s from the League of Municipalities.

Unlike last month’s free session, league sessions cost $100 per person. And rather than show up in person, the league provides its training by teleconference.

Although at least two of the city’s five council members will be out of office in less than six months, all would receive training. To save cost, city administrator Brogan Jones would leave the room before training began. And no others would be invited so the city wouldn’t have to pay $100 for each extra person.

The problem is, training is not one of the limited reasons a city council can use to deny public access. So any meeting about open meetings would end up becoming an illegally closed meeting.

Open meetings and open records aren’t mysteries that require extensive training. The simple rule is, when a matter involves government business, it almost always needs to be open and public, and when it isn’t, a logical reason needs to be stated.

As with devising negotiation and legal strategies, the law doesn’t require — nor does anyone seek — revealing that ditch digger Sam has a drinking problem or that secretary Sue needs time off to spend with her dementia-inflicted husband.

On other matters, openness not only is required but actually makes sense.

Rumors of misdeeds involving government employees become much less divisive if officials publicly acknowledge, without disclosing names, that they are investigating them rather than saying only that they are discussing “personnel matters,” which could involve doling out raises instead of discipline.

Imagine that you hear fireworks outside allowed hours. If you know that police have been trying to enforce fireworks rules, you don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re lazy, don’t care, or are giving preferential treatment.

Negative attitudes toward government are common. Newspapers often are blamed. Truth is, governments’ own penchant for secrecy is how ugly rumors and attitudes fester in the shadows. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Even in sweltering weather, making sure government operates in the open is the best way to keep public tempers cool.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 14, 2023

 

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