Secrecy over search triggers complaint
A closed-door meeting Monday by Marion City Council to begin its search for a new city administrator drew a complaint to the attorney general’s office.
The meeting was an initial discussion with Don Osenbaugh, a recruiter hired to help the city find a replacement for administrator Roger Holter, whose last day will be June 30.
After getting an opinion from a lawyer who specializes in open meetings law, Marion County Record objected to the council going behind closed doors to discuss recruiting.
The objection was met by Mayor David Mayfield repeating that the council would go into executive session “to discuss personnel matters of non-elected personnel.”
The newspaper filed an open meetings complaint with the attorney general’s office Tuesday.
That complaint states that the council met in executive session with consultant Osenbaugh about terms of his personal services contract, approved a week earlier, to search for a city administrator. Osenbaugh’s contract states that he initially will meet in executive session with the council to discuss “the parameters of the city administrator search process.”
“Key elements of that meeting will include … the desired education, experience, and personal attributes of the next Marion city administrator” and “determination of an appropriate salary.”
The complaint cites previous attorney general opinion that “personnel” discussions must focus on actual employees, not consultants or “public officers.”
“The city council in question has a long history of abuse of the open meetings law,” publisher Eric Meyer wrote in the complaint. “We respectfully suggest that a possible remedy might be a consent agreement in which the city would agree to record (as it already does for open sessions) all future executive sessions and establish a procedure under which some independent party or judge could review such recordings to determine whether the session legally could have been closed to the public. If that arbitrator concludes that standards for closing the meeting were not met, the recording would be released to the public.”
Laws in some other states already mandate this.
The council spent a total of an hour and 10 minutes in secret meeting.
Monday’s agenda listed two discussions scheduled for open meeting: an introduction to the city administrator recruitment process and a review of next steps in that process. No discussion of any kind was held in public.
Max Kautsch, attorney for Kansas Sunshine Coalition and Kansas Press Association, one of the state’s leading experts in Kansas open meeting law, said discussing a recruiting search in closed session was not legal.
“(It’s) not legal to discuss general policy in closed session,” Kautsch said. “Moreover, Osenbaugh is an independent contractor and the AG has found meetings with ICs need to be in public.”
Osenbaugh said he prefers to discuss what city council members are looking for in secret so strengths and flaws of previous administrators are not discussed in public, which might violate employee privacy.