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Sedgwick County’s computer purchase may have violated open-meetings law

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 21, 2014, at 8:15 p.m.

In a rush to buy computers for the Sheriff’s Department before they went off the market, steps taken by the Sedgwick County commissioners raise questions of whether they violated the state’s open meeting law.

Faced with a 5 p.m. Friday deadline to buy the computers or wait for a more expensive model to come out, a sheriff’s official met privately with each of the commissioners and got their consent to push through the buy as an emergency measure, according to statements at a special meeting of the Board of Bids and Contracts.

“If they went and canvassed the commission member by member, that’s plainly a serial meeting,” said Mike Merriam, general counsel for the Kansas Press Association.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2009 prohibiting serial meetings, a process of using individual or small-group meetings to privately decide on government actions.

Assistant County Counsel Mike Pepoon said he thinks the meetings between the commissioners and Chief Deputy Richard Powell did not constitute an illegal meeting and that the meetings were informational, not an attempt to gather the opinions of the commissioners.

“He said he was just briefing them on the issue,” Pepoon said. “If that’s a violation, we do that all the time.”

Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis said County Manager William Buchanan called the special meeting of the bid board for Friday afternoon.

Buchanan requested that “Richard Powell visit with each of the commissioners individually to explain what the situation was and what the proposed action was to make sure they were all in agreement with that action,” Chronis told the board during Friday’s meeting. “He (Powell) has done that and as he said, he has communicated to them the urgency of the situation and indicated to them that the transaction will be brought to them on their next available agenda for retroactive approval. He tells me that each of the commissioners individually has consented to that approach, so that’s why we’re here today.”

Commission Chairman Dave Unruh said he did not think it was part of a serial meeting when he and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn met with Powell, because they did not know what the other commissioners had said and they did not take any action.

Merriam, however, said the law against serial meetings applies whether the commissioners take action or not. The commissioners should have called a special meeting, by telephone if necessary, he said.

The county is spending $137,100 to buy 75 ruggedized Dell laptop computers for the sheriff’s deputies and cars.

The county charter requires that purchases over $50,000 go before the bid board and the commission. The purchasing director has authority to spend more in an emergency, but must notify the commission within one week if he does that, Pepoon said.

The computer purchase could be considered an economic emergency because it would cost about $80,000 more to buy computers if the county missed Friday’s deadline, he said.

Purchasing Director Joe Thomas, who was taking a vacation day came in and authorized the purchase order after the bid board approved it, Pepoon said.

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

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