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Open meetings meeting may be closed

Staff writer

Marion is poised to spend $500 for city council members to receive training about open meetings from the Kansas League of Municipalities.

The expense would come just weeks after a lawyer who heads Kansas Coalition for Open Government provided free training about the Kansas Open Records Act and Kansas Open Meetings Act for the city, county, school board and other public boards.

Mayor David Mayfield asked city administrator Brogan Jones to check into additional education because he didn’t think Max Kautsch’s open meetings training was sufficient.

City council member Zach Collett interrupted the meeting to complain about its length, saying it was 30 minutes longer than he had anticipated.

Council member Ruth Herbel organized the initial training after she learned that the league charged.

About 20 people attended Kautsch’s session.

“The Kansas Coalition for Open Government is appreciative of the opportunity to share our organization’s perspective on open government law with the Marion community,” Kautsch said. “Our state’s open records and open meetings laws exist to help the public understand what the government is up to.

“Moreover, both of those laws expressly provide that when in doubt, they are to be interpreted in favor of openness rather than secrecy. The Coalition encourages all public bodies to realize that these laws promote openness, while also giving public employees a modicum of privacy.

“The key is to properly balance these issues while keeping in mind that the public interest generally outweighs private interests.”

The league charges $100 per person for training conducted over Zoom and more for in-person training, city administrator Brogan Jones told the council Monday.

The Record on Monday asked whether the training about open meetings would be an open meeting. Mayfield has been adamant that he only wants council members in attendance.

There is no exemption under KOMA that allows public bodies to close a meeting for such training.

The Record plans to push to attend the meeting but doesn’t plan to pay $100 to do so.

Jones told the paper Tuesday that he was still in communications with the league about options. He also told city council members Monday that he would not attend so the city would not have to pay $100 for him.

Records and meetings by public bodies are presumed open under state law unless there’s a compelling reason to close them.

 “It is the public policy of Kansas that ‘public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy,” the Kansas attorney general’s office website says.

However, the public and journalists across the state regularly encounter public officials who seek to find an exemption — or reason — to close records and meetings.

During a statewide open records audit in 2000, a Harper County sheriff’s official detained a Record reporter who at the time worked for The Wichita Eagle because she had requested several records across the county.

When the reporter, working undercover as other journalists across the statedid for the audit, identified herself as a reporter, the official said she should have said she was a reporter from the beginning. The Kansas audit was patterned after an audit in Indiana that the reporter and her editor, who later recruited her to Wichita, helped lead.

Records and meetings aren’t open for journalists.

They’re open for the public.

The sheriff’s official then called her editor and said “I’ve got your little gal here.”

The official was fired soon after, and Columbia Journalism Review wrote a story about the audit.

The Eagle’s attorney asked the reporter whether she wanted to sue the official and county for detaining her illegally. She declined.

Throughout Marion County, various public bodies have closed meetings without providing a “short, plain statement” about why, citing only a statutory requirement for recessing into executive session such as “non-elected personnel matters” or “attorney-client privilege.” The attorney general’s office provided remedial training to Centre’s school board after it agreed the board had violated KOMA in February.

The Record is filing a complaint with the attorney general’s office about Monday’s city council meeting. After Mayfield adjourned the meeting, city council members lingered to discuss a $15,000 settlement with the family of a woman who committed suicide in jail. They did not take any action, only discussed their concerns that at least two city council members and Jones didn’t know the city’s insurance agency had settled with the family.

Jones contends the council did not violate KOMA on Monday because a majority of the council was not actively discussing the settlement. Four city council members attended the meeting. Collett was absent.

On Tuesday, Jones told a Record reporter that he would send something in writing to indicate that he would answer questions submitted only by email. The Record has not received an email or letter from him. Collett also only answers questions by email. Mayfield has never returned a call or email from the reporter.

Last modified July 13, 2023

 

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