By Sarah Kessinger, Marysville Advocate
Training helps elected local officials to minimize their chances of breaking the state’s open meetings law, an attorney with the League of Kansas Municipalities told a group of public officials in Marysville at a Dec. 10 meeting.
Kim Winn, the league’s deputy director, spoke to 25 city and county officials from Marshall, Nemaha and Washington counties at the meeting in Marshall County Courthouse. The session was sponsored by the city of Marysville and the office of Marshall County Attorney Laura Johnson-McNish.
Winn said officials who are members of elected boards for cities, counties and school districts are subject to the law, and their committees and boards are as well.
“Make sure all of your subgroups know they are covered by the Kansas Open Meetings Act ... sometimes that’s lost in translation,” Winn said. “Any taxing unit is covered.”
She said the “heart and soul” of the law is to know what constitutes a meeting.
Winn defined a meeting as a gathering of a majority of the membership of a body such as a city council, board of county commissioners or school board or any of their subdivisions. The body must be interacting and it must be discussing the public’s business.
When officials are gathered for training, they aren’t necessarily doing public business, she said, but if they are driving together to such a gathering, she said, they need to avoid discussing public business.
Winn said communications among officials extend to electronic communications.
“Don’t put anything in an e-mail you don’t want on the front page of your newspaper,” she said. “It is not a private form of communication. It can be easily forwarded, easily edited and easily misconstrued.”
“I do not find it a great way to communicate on policy decisions.”
Winn advised officials not to use text messaging during open meetings.
By texting among public officials at a meeting “you are creating a closed meeting, a closed conversation within what is supposed to be an open meeting.”
She also advised officials against whispering with other officials at a public meeting.
Winn said members of public bodies need to be aware that if a majority is talking about public business at a ball game or other public event outside of an open meeting, they are in violation of the law.
To discuss public issues, the majority must give public advance notice of their meeting.
“Either don’t speak...or give notice. That will keep you out of trouble 99 percent of the time,” Winn said.
Winn and Johnson-McNish briefly disagreed over the weight of the state’s attorney general in enforcing the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The law specifies it is to be enforced by the county attorney or the attorney general.
The attorney general’s office can be asked by a public official to issue a formal opinion if a suspected violation occurs.
Winn said attorney general opinions do not carry the weight of law and that she didn’t think many of the opinions would hold up in court.
Johnson-McNish said she would work with the attorney general to resolve issues of open meetings, if necessary.
“We have to look at who enforces it. This is one area where I will take the attorney general’s opinions very much to heart” Johnson-McNish said.
Later, Johnson-McNish added, “In this instance, I think it should be given more weight, because they enforce this law. The AG is very good in this area in putting out very helpful information to governing bodies. We’re just going to give them a lot weight because they’re responsible for enforcement.”
Winn also discussed “serial meetings,” or a series of discussions among members held outside of public meetings. She explained they must avoid “vote collecting” or making calls to members of a public body to round up enough votes to pass an issue at a coming public meeting.
The discussion and vote should happen in an open meeting, she noted.
“Even the threat of a KOMA violation really affects the trust between you and your citizens,” Winn said.
At special meetings that are scheduled outside of regular meetings, officials should always give notice to individuals who request it.
Also, state law prohibits secret ballots.
Executive sessions may be called by a body during an open meeting only for specific issues allowed under the law, such as discussion of non-elected personnel, attorney-client discussion or acquisition of property, and only for a specified amount of time. No votes may be taken in executive, or closed, session.
Winn advised officials to notify the county attorney if they think they have broken the law.
“Don’t ever try to cover up,” she said, and if there is a cover-up attempt or a violation, nothing draws media attention like an official trying to battle it.
Johnson-McNish said after the meeting that the overall session was good and well-attended.
“Everyone there wants to comply with the laws and be accountable to the public, and I applaud that,” she said. “It was a great step in the right direction.”
For information on the Kansas Open Meetings Law, people can visit the attorney general’s website at ag.ks.gov/legal-services/open-govt.
The website has a file for download that explains both open meetings and open records law in Kansas.
See more at: http://www.marysvilleonline.net/articles/2013/12/31/news/doc52c2e25c0314...
By Sarah Kessinger, Marysville Advocate