AG rules on complaints about closure

Posted July 18, 2019

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office dismissed part of a formal complaint and planned to continue investigation of whether the public was denied the right under the Kansas Open Meetings Act to observe business of the Senate after the visitor gallery was closed to staunch a protest, a government transparency group said recently.

The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government sought intervention by Attorney General Derek Schmidt after the May 29 session of the Senate was interrupted by people protesting in support of Medicaid expansion.

The KOMA  complaint was filed on behalf of the Kansas Press Association, Kansas Association of Broadcasters, the Kansas Institute for Governmental Transparency, all represented on the Sunshine Coalition board.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, responded by allowing the gallery to be temporarily closed.

News reporters were removed from the Senate chamber during the protest, but Democratic and Republicans senators, legislative staff, employees of the governor and others were allowed to remain.

On social media, Wagle said people were told to leave the Senate “to ensure the safety of everyone.”

Ron Keefover, president of the Sunshine Coalition, said the attorney general’s office notified the organization by letter that concerns the Senate denied the public an opportunity to observe proceedings in violation of KOMA would require further investigation.

In addition, the letter said the attorney general’s office would consider, “in an abundance of caution,” whether any business of the Senate occurred while the chamber was in recess.

The office of the GOP attorney general said allegations the Senate violated its own rules and operated contrary to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution went beyond authority granted the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Lisa Mendoza, an assistant attorney general for Kansas, informed the Sunshine Coalition the Senate was arbiter of its own rules. Alleged constitutional violations cannot be resolved through the complaint process established by the state open meetings act, she said.

“We decline to take any further action or express any opinion concerning the merits of these allegations,” Mendoza said.

Keefover said he was encouraged the attorney general was examining conduct of the Senate but disappointed that key elements of the complaint were dismissed.

“We still think the Senate actions in closing its doors to the public and news media are outrageous and cannot be tolerated,” he said.

Potential expansion of eligibility for Medicaid to about 130,000 working adults and children was a point of contention during the 2019 session. A bill broadening access was passed by the House, but Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning collaborated to block Senate consideration of the bill.

Denning said the issue would be considered by the 2020 Legislature. Expansion of Medicaid remains a central policy objective of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.