Shh— it’s a secret!
Maybe it’s blue-green algae in our drinking water, but something seems to be making local politicians overly eager to conduct huge portions of the public’s business in the most un-American way possible: in secret.
When the Record learned last week (not from an elected official, by the way) the name of a candidate for Marion’s city administrator position, we quickly were able to determine that he had been a candidate for similar positions in at least two other municipalities.
Both had done as Hillsboro recently did with its superintendent search and made the names of finalists public. That way, people paying the bills and potentially working with the candidates could weigh in on the decision. In one case, feedback was such that the entire pool was deemed insufficient, and the search was restarted rather than settling for a candidate regarded as the lesser of evils.
If Marion contends it couldn’t reveal names because candidates would be reluctant to apply, that clearly isn’t true. Not only is the candidate involved not currently employed by a city elsewhere. He clearly accepted having his name released in two other searches, even when he didn’t get the job.
Similar secrecy surrounded the Marion school board’s decision to pay off its top administrator to get him to quit.
While it may be fine to protect the privacy of a rank-and-file employee, legal opinions make it clear that alleged missteps by top officials aren’t covered by privacy.
The public has a right to know not only what they allegedly did but also how much their payoff to leave is going to be. Yet the Record was forced to file a request in the faint hope of getting substantially delayed release of only a portion of that information.
Secrecy pervades almost everything about local government. From comments made in open meetings of the city council, it’s obvious that the packets of information provided to council members before each meeting contain material not in packets provided to the public with the implicit assurance that they contain everything council members receive.
State law is clear. K.S.A. 45-221 states that proposals, opinions, and memos become public if they ever are cited or identified in an open meeting, put on a meeting’s agenda, or distributed to a majority of a quorum of the governmental body.
We could ask every week to see the secret documents before they are acted upon, but because they are posted so close to the meeting date, time delays built in to the open records law allow their release to be delayed until after they already had been acted upon, rendering moot any research anyone might want to do on an issue.
Marion’s city council remains under active investigation by the state attorney general’s office for what the Record and outside legal experts regard as repeated violations of the state’s open meetings law. The community is developing a reputation statewide as being — in the words of one statewide legal expert — “corrupt” because of its secrecy. It’s not negativity that’s giving the community a bad name. It’s its own secrecy.
Hopefully, having a new school superintendent and a new city administrator not steeped in the un-American secrecy of the past will begin to help address this. But ultimately, this becomes an issue for voters. Elected officials need to begin serving the public that pays the bills not just the employees who cash their checks. Until that happens, we’ll continue to be mired in a local equivalent of the “deep state” bureaucracy that some believe has taken over our nation.
— ERIC MEYER