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Kansas utility regulator OKs new open-meetings guidelines

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, at 7:52 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, at 7:52 p.m.

Two days before a court-imposed deadline expired, the Kansas Corporation Commission on Tuesday approved new guidelines for how it will conduct business in compliance with state open-meetings laws.

The commission sets rates and regulates electric, gas and some other utilities in Kansas. The new guidelines generally require that all final-action decisions be made in public meetings.

Commissioners will still be able to meet privately to deliberate in courtlike utility rate cases and hold closed sessions under certain circumstances when handling policy decisions and internal agency business.

Commissioners decided Tuesday to publish the new rules on the commission’s website, www.kcc.state.ks.us, and distribute them to utilities and others who regularly do business with the commission. They said they will finalize the procedures after a public-comment period that ends Jan. 3.

The commission took action after Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor filed for an injunction, saying the KCC violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is designed to ensure that state and local agencies handle public business in public.

The prosecution of that case was stayed 120 days to give the commission time to change its policies to comply with the law. The 120 days end Thursday.

Taylor alleged the commission violated the law by using a process called “pink-sheeting” that allowed commissioners to sign off on decisions without holding a public meeting. The process got its name from the color of the paper slips used to gather commissioners’ signatures.

Taylor took action after another state agency, the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, filed a complaint that the KCC had violated the law when it used pink-sheeting to pass a rate hike for a small water system near Salina.

Since the start of the legal action, the commission has taken some actions to open its processes to more public view.

Matters that used to be routinely handled by pink-sheeting are now placed on a consent agenda and passed by vote in the commission’s public meetings.

In addition, the public can now watch the commission’s open meetings held in Topeka via a live video link to the Finney State Office Building in Wichita.

Niki Christopher, a lawyer with CURB, said the agency provided evidence to Taylor but has stepped away from the court proceedings.

“I think they (commissioners) have been doing a better job of trying to be transparent, but I don’t know how their internal processes have changed,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, she objected to a closed session called by the commission to discuss undisclosed legal issues with attorneys. Christopher said she thinks that session violated the open-meetings law because non-attorney staff members were also allowed to attend.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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