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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Brownback’s dinners with legislators may be violating Open Meetings Act

Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback’s spokeswoman is defending the dinners he hosted this month with legislative leaders amid questions about whether they violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Over the past month, Brownback has hosted several dinners, which are generally are restricted to Republicans.

Two members of the House Appropriations Committee who attended a Cedar Crest dinner Tuesday said a majority of that committee was present, and topics of discussion included taxes and the state budget.

Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney who represents the Kansas Press Association, said the dinners appear to violate the law.

“The issue is whether a majority (of the committee) met and whether they were discussing government business,” Merriam said. “The specifics of the discussion are immaterial to KOMA … On the face of it, it seems like a KOMA violation.”

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said dinners at Cedar Crest are not an open-meetings violation.

“Social dinners hosted at Cedar Crest give the governor and legislators an opportunity to get to know one another away from the Statehouse,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “All 165 legislators and their spouses, regardless of their political affiliation, have been invited to join the governor and first lady for dinner last year and this year. These dinners did not violate state law.”

Other committees that have been invited to Cedar Crest include the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System Select Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.

When asked for a list of guests who attended those functions, Jones-Sontag said it was “private.”

“You’ll have to file an open-records request,” she said.

The Topeka Capital-Journal filed the request Friday and received a response stating it was being processed.

Matt Patterson, an assistant district attorney in Shawnee County, said he couldn’t offer an advisory opinion on the dinners without more information but said District Attorney Chad Taylor enforces the Open Meetings Act.

“Any time somebody brings something like that to our attention, Chad’s pretty aggressive in making sure that’s enforced,” Patterson said. “We don’t take that lightly.”

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he didn’t think the governor’s dinners violate the law because they are “social gatherings” where no binding action is taken.

When informed that the law prohibits private committee discussion, as well as binding action, O’Neal said he had no further comment.

Merriam said Kansas law allows committees to vote to exempt themselves from the Open Meetings Act. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said he didn’t think his committee had such an exemption.

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he was troubled that Brownback’s gatherings target specific committees.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the governor to be calling certain legislative committees to dinner,” Hensley said. “If it’s not in violation of the law, it’s certainly in violation of the spirit of the law.”

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