At least Gov. Sam Brownback no longer expects Kansans to believe he invited Republican-only majorities of specific legislative committees to the governor’s mansion just to eat, drink and be merry. But he still needs to call the seven meetings what they were – a mistake that he and future governors should not repeat.
Back in January, his staff tried to spin the private gatherings at Cedar Crest as strictly “social dinners.” But some of the GOP lawmakers who attended have said that legislation was discussed, making the meetings appear at odds with the Kansas Open Meetings Act’s guarantee “that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”
Last week, thanks to the Kansas Open Records Act, an e-mail surfaced in which the mansion manager had told a staffer for state Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, that the intent was that legislators’ spouses not attend because committee members would be “discussing business during/immediately following dinner.”
Asked Friday about the e-mail, an exasperated Brownback called his staff member’s statement “inaccurate” but acknowledged the purpose of the gatherings.
“I was going to tell people, and did, about the legislative agenda. And I spoke about it. I spoke a lot about it,” he said. “That’s not inappropriate for that to take place.”
That’s where he’s wrong. True, a governor isn’t subject to the open-meetings act. But no governor should put legislators at risk of violating the law, as Brownback’s private dinners clearly did.
And even if Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor’s investigation of the dinners doesn’t lead to action on his part, it should motivate Brownback and legislators to avoid such risky situations in the future.
But it’s hard to see that happening, with the governor and some lawmakers still failing to see the harm or open-meetings violation in gatherings where the public’s business was discussed but the public was excluded.
“I did most of the talking, and taking of comments and questions. That, I still believe, is fully appropriate,” Brownback said Friday.
“It was innocuous, what was said,” Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
“You guys are on a witch hunt,” Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, told the same newspaper.
If KOMA was violated, the legislators involved could be subject to fines of up to $500 – a costly tab for such an evening. But the price will be higher for Kansans if elected officials can’t see the problem in getting together for pork tenderloin, wild rice casserole and legislative debate behind closed doors.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman