Editorials

Make open meetings law clearer

The open meetings law is not about the convenience of officials; it’s about open and transparent government.
The open meetings law is not about the convenience of officials; it’s about open and transparent government.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office reached a puzzling decision this week that largely cleared the Wichita school board of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Apparently the Legislature needs to make the law clearer.

A 1996 Kansas Attorney General’s opinion (not a court ruling) indicated that it could be permissible for elected bodies to recess one day and return on a subsequent day. The school board followed this opinion when it voted on Feb. 13 to recess into executive session.

But instead of a short recess, the board announced that its regular meeting would resume eight days later, on Feb. 21. The board then met at 1 p.m. on Feb. 18 at a law firm office and interviewed two candidates for superintendent. There was no public notice of the date, time and place of that meeting.

The Eagle contended that the eight-day break was too long to constitute a “recess,” thereby making the executive session a violation of KOMA. It also argued that the failure to provide public notice of the Feb. 18 meeting was another violation.

But Deputy District Attorney Ann Swegle determined there were no statutory definitions of the terms “recess,” “adjourn” and “adjournment” in KOMA. Therefore, she wrote, the executive session “cannot clearly be said to violate KOMA by virtue of its eight-day length.”

She also concluded that because the board was in “recess” and is allowed by law to meet in private to discuss personnel matters, it was not required to provide public notice of its Feb. 18 meeting.

The only violation Swegle identified was the board’s failure to include the justification for a closed meeting in its formal motion to recess. The school board and its attorney promised to correct that error going forward.

Swegle noted the attorney general opinion stated that as long as there was no intent to subvert KOMA, a meeting could be adjourned, recessed or continued to another date, time or place. But that seems to make ignorance an acceptable excuse for violating the law.

The A.G. opinion also indicated there were limits to the length of a recess. And it emphasized the need to provide specific notice about meeting dates, times and places that substantially differ from the original notice.

“Any contrary interpretation of the KOMA notice requirements flies in the face of the clear intent of the KOMA, the spirit of the law, and the actual language of the statutes,” the opinion stated.

Also, school board member Betty Arnold told The Eagle the reason the board declared an eight-day recess was that it was more convenient for board members.

The open meetings law is not about the convenience of officials; it’s about open and transparent government.

Swegle’s decision seemed to focus more on the intent of the board members than the intent of the law. If the law’s intent is not clear, the Legislature needs make it so.

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