Sunshine Week, the national initiative by journalists to assure that sunshine illuminates every crevasse in the halls of officialdom, runs March 10-16. During that week, newspapers traditionally run editorials and columns extolling the importance of open government as it relates to our freedoms as Americans.
That is a week away. But, due to the efforts of the Kansas Legislature to gut the Kansas Open Meetings Act like a channel cat so it can shun the public eye and move more of its shenanigans into the shadows, the topic can’t wait. So egregious are these efforts that this matter must be addressed now with the full force of the media.
It is not only the free press that loses. The citizenry does as well.
First, what is on the table?
Two of the bills are designed to redefine a meeting and the other would eliminate the publication of constitutional amendments in Kansas newspapers. Now, constitutional amendments are printed for three consecutive weeks by one newspaper in each county. House Bill 2336 and Senate Bill 200 use different routes to rework the definition of a meeting under KOMA. Neither has had a hearing scheduled, but both can hang around for the entire session under the rules of the Legislature.
HB 2336 would allow the majority of a committee to meet privately if the gathering didn’t result in “deliberation” on a topic. Now, KOMA requires that the public be notified when a majority “discusses” the business of the body, a much lower threshold.
SB 200 would go even farther. It would allow discussions where the “central purpose” was a “social gathering, convention, workshop, press conference, training or educational programs or ceremonial, religious or civic events.”
In other words, a chamber of commerce banquet, little Johnny’s birthday party or spaghetti feed could be the “central purpose” that draw a majority of a public body to one place, but it wouldn’t constitute a “meeting” if they met.
“These bills would gouge a huge hole in KOMA and basically endorse conversations of public officials in all kinds of settings outside the usual meeting room,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of KPA. “Not only would this ‘legalize’ last year’s Cedar Crest meetings; it would allow any public official anywhere to use the cover of a social event to discuss public business. These are horrible ideas.”
Another bill, HB 2364, would eliminate the requirement of newspaper publication of constitutional amendments and replace them with publication on the Secretary of State’s website and the official State of Kansas website. Under the bill, newspapers would instead receive a press release.
The KPA has battled this dragon for years. The League of Kansas Municipalities and the Kansas Association of Counties have lobbied to allow local governments to do the same thing.
In addition, without hearings, the Senate Ways & Means Committee last year added troubling words to KORA exception 13, which concerns “the contents of appraisals or engineering or feasibility estimates or evaluations made by or for a public agency relative to the acquisition of property, prior to the award of formal contracts therefor.” Last year, the words “or disposal” were added after “acquisition.”
What this says is that a governing body can now meet in closed session and not only discuss the purchase of property, but also the sale of it.
“We understand that the acquisition of property by a public agency should have some protection to keep land or other property from skyrocketing in value,” Anstaett said. “But when a public agency is selling land, personal property or other property owned by the taxpayers, that information cannot remain confidential or the public’s trust in the process will be shattered.”
Why should John or Jane Q. Public give a damn?
The answer is simple.
This is not just a “freedom of the press” issue. This is not merely a bunch of whining from reporters. This is a slap in the face to all citizens who have the right to know what is happing in the corridors of power and is a violation of the trust between them and those they elected to serve them.
We elect our leaders as our representatives. They take an oath to defend the Constitution and work in the best interest of their constituents.
This process is intended to be an open one where actions of elected officials are done out in the open, not behind closed doors. What are they afraid of? What are they trying to hide?
There are exemptions to the open meetings law, and with good reason. But, these are few.
We should all be outraged by these aggressive attempts by a increasingly isolationist Legislature to shield itself from public scrutiny. We must all contact our state representatives and let them know this is unacceptable.
Dale Hogg is the managing editor of the Great Bend Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.