So Gov. Sam Brownback’s legislative dinners at Cedar Crest early this year didn’t constitute a “substantive violation” of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, according to the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office. That doesn’t excuse either the governor’s decision to invite majorities of legislative committees to discuss specific legislation behind closed doors, or what the investigators found to be widespread ignorance about the open-meetings law among lawmakers.
The seven dinners involved 13 committees, with topics of conversation such as taxes, the state budget, school finance and the state-employee pension system. Matt Patterson and J. Todd Hiatt, both Shawnee County senior assistant district attorneys, wrote that “toward the end of each dinner, the governor stood and addressed the committee attendees,” and question-and-answer sessions followed.
The public and media weren’t included among the 90 invitees, though the open-meetings law clearly states that it is “the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”
Brownback and the Republican lawmakers who attended and talked shop clearly knew they were flirting with trouble, too, as KOMA was discussed at the gatherings. Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, even stood up amid the first meeting on Jan. 9 and cautioned the group about violating the law and Brownback agreed, according to the report. “However, the conversation soon returned to specifics” of particular pension reforms and strategies for passing them – all issues that would be naturally brought before the committee during the legislative session, Patterson and Hiatt noted.
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Some of those who attended the dinners have viewed them as harmless social occasions and characterized media scrutiny of them as a “witch hunt.”
But “a prearranged gathering where the business of the body is discussed by a majority of that body is a violation of KOMA,” the investigators wrote.
They also wrote: “We know that the public was not notified of these dinners. Without such notice, the public’s right to know was denied.”
And “in the end,” they wrote, “it appears that most legislators in attendance simply lacked the knowledge that would be expected of an elected official under the circumstances.” Who says ignorance of the law is no defense?
That finding underscores their recommendations that all legislators “receive detailed and specific training on KOMA and its application to their roles as elected members of the Kansas Legislature,” and that the Attorney General’s Office “develop guidelines the House and Senate can enact to ensure that their members comply with the letter and spirit of KOMA.”
Meanwhile, the governor should demonstrate that he’s learned from the episode by doing as predecessors have done: He should keep his Cedar Crest entertaining strictly social and his legislative guest lists random and, even better, bipartisan.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman