Officials learn about open meetings, records

7/23/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

About two dozen people, mostly local government officials, attended the first of five regional training sessions designed as a primer on the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the Kansas Open Records Act. The seminar was held on Monday in the Endowment Room of the Beth Tedrow Student Center at Garden City Community College.

Jointly presented by the Kansas Attorney General's Office, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, and the Kansas Press Association, the seminar featured a panel comprised of Ron Keefover, president of the coalition and information officer for the Kansas Supreme Court, Doug Anstaett, executive director of the KPA, and Dena Sattler, editor-publisher of The Garden City Telegram and president of the KPA Board.

Anstaett said the Topeka-based KPA works with 235 newspapers across the state on a variety of open government issues. He noted that nowhere in the KOMA or KORA is the press mentioned. Anstaett said the power of the press may give it more clout at times on open government issues, but the law doesn't provide any more access rights to the press than it does to every person in the state.

"This is a right of all citizens to have access to meetings and records. We don't have any special privileges," he said.

Sattler said the newspaper's coverage of local governments does its best to make sure readers have access to their government.

"It's their government, and I hope that they participate, not only by reading the paper, but by showing up at these meetings. That's why it's important to make sure all of our government operations are open and accessible to the public," she said.

Lisa Mendoza, assistant attorney general, said Kansas has a long history of support for open meetings and open records, noting that the state has had an open meetings law on the books since 1868, and a public records act in effect since 1957. KOMA and KORA were enacted in 1972 and 1984, respectively.

"I don't think there's any real magic here. The law is pretty clear. It says the government is supposed to be open," she said.

In general, the purpose of open meetings is to increase accountability of public officials and curb misconduct by requiring business to be conducted in the open, Mendoza said. The open meetings act guarantees the people's right to observe and listen to policy makers make decisions, and it applies to all political and taxing subdivisions in the state, roughly 4,000 groups and organizations.

"Representative government depends on an informed electorate," Mendoza said. "The more you know about how your government operates, the better decisions you can make about how and what you want your government to be."

Some local elected officials had questions about how the law effects times when commission or council members interact outside of a meeting.

Garden City Mayor Dan Fankhauser asked whether a scenario of three of five city commissioners driving in one car to Dodge City would be a violation.

Mendoza said it's not a violation if commissioners don't discuss the business or affairs of the city commission. But the danger lies in creating a perception that public business is being discussed during the ride.

Another question from the audience centered on an odd situation concerning school board elections and executive sessions. State law says newly elected school board members must be sworn in within 10 days of April's elections. But the new members don't actually take their seats on the board until July 1, causing some question about whether those member-elects should be allowed to enter executive sessions between being certified and being seated.

The question stumped Mendoza, who said she had never encountered the situation before.

Anstaett said in his opinion, it should not be allowed.

"I'm not an attorney, but I would say if they don't have the ability to vote, they should not be in the executive session. Especially with an attorney. That would break privilege."

The open records act is similar to the open meetings law. Unless specifically required to be closed, the public has the right to review all public records, Mendoza said.

Generally, KORA sets out the process for requesting records, reviewing records and making copies. It also spells out procedures public agencies must follow when a request is made, and states the circumstances under which certain records can be withheld.

The law generally assumes everything is open, unless there is a specific exemption for it. If a record request is denied, the burden is on the public agency to prove why the record is exempt.

Mendoza said there are more than 300 types of records that are required to be closed by law. Some examples include things like tax returns, Social Security numbers, children in need of care reports, abuse and neglect reports, and records of juveniles under age 14.

The seminar will be repeated this week in Colby, Topeka, Pittsburg and Paola with varying panelists.

More information about the laws and about open government is available on the Kansas Attorney General's website at www.ag.ks.gov/legal-services/open-govt, or through the Kansas Sunshine Coalition website at www.sunshinecoalition.com/.

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