Johnson County DA says JCCC did not violate open meetings law

The Johnson County district attorney found no violations of the Kansas open meetings law following complaints by a former trustee of Johnson County Community College.

That opinion was issued Wednesday by District Attorney Steve Howe after Benjamin Hodge, whose four-year term as a college trustee ended last month, alleged two instances in which he said college trustees may have violated the law. College officials were notified of the opinion today.

Hodge, a former state lawmaker, worried that the law may have been broken when a letter to The Star signed by four of six trustees was circulated.

That letter was a response to a previously printed letter from Hodge that suggested the board of trustees might be considering a tax increase.

In his complaint, Hodge alleged that circulating that letter was a serial meeting, which is prohibited by the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

In his opinion, Howe disagreed.

He said a serial meeting under Kansas law must meet three conditions: It must involve a majority of a governmental body, share a common topic concerning the business affairs of that organization and work toward agreement on a topic that would require a vote to be taken later in a formal meeting.

Howe wrote that the trustees’ letter involved a majority of the board. However, he said there was no attempt to reach an agreement “on a matter that would require binding action to be taken by the body or agency.”

The trustees’ letter said the board had not determined whether to raise the mill levy.

“We must not give false impressions of what we are doing,” the letter stated.

Hodge said that under the opinion, an elected majority could discuss anything through e-mails or phone calls as long they agreed not to vote on the topic.

“Here is now a giant hole in KOMA law, if this opinions stands,” Hodge said.

In his second complaint, Hodge alleged that the law may have been violated when Terry Calaway, college president, provided trustees with a document outlining possible budget reductions during an executive session to evaluate his job performance.

Calaway said he produced the document after Hodge questioned whether Calaway could produce a budget recommendation with no increase in property taxes. Hodge said he never asked for the kind of information that Calaway gave the board.

Hodge was severely criticized by board members later for releasing Calaway’s list to a reporter for The Star.

Howe said providing the list to the board fit the definition of “personnel matters of non-elected officials” and can be discussed in a closed meeting.

Under Howe’s conclusion, Hodge said elected officials could submit any public document they wanted under the guise of evaluating someone’s job performance.

Hodge indicated he might ask Kansas Attorney General Steve Six to review Howe’s opinion.

Lynn Mitchelson, a current trustee, said he was pleased with Howe’s opinion.

“The JCCC trustees take the Kansas Open Meetings Act very seriously,” said Mitchelson. “We appreciate that the district attorney’s office recognized that we did not and would not violate the law.”