Archive for Thursday, March 2, 2006

Legislators stall sunshine bill

March 2, 2006

The Kansas House of Representatives showed us this past week just what effect an election year can have on the conduct of public business.

Faced with a barrage of telephone calls, e-mails and personal visits from lobbyists representing cities, counties, school districts and community colleges, the House Republican leadership decided a bill to allow for the tape recording of executive sessions of public bodies was too explosive to send to the House floor.

Instead of instituting a rather limited safeguard for the public's right to know, the House folded to election year politics.

What the Kansas Press Association, Kansas Association of Broadcasters, League of Women Voters and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government were seeking was a check on the right of public bodies to adjourn to executive or closed sessions.

House Bill 2719, endorsed by a majority of the members of the House Governmental Organization and Elections Committee on Feb. 22, would have required the tape recording of an executive session only when a member of a board, council or commission believed the discussion violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

KOMA includes 13 instances, or exceptions, where public bodies can go behind closed doors to discuss sensitive topics such as non-elected personnel, matters relating to employer-employee negotiations, consultation with an attorney that would be deemed privileged in the attorney-client relationship, matters relating to security and preliminary discussions relating to the acquisition of real property. Other discussions, such as policy decisions, long-range planning and budgeting, are expressly forbidden. Furthermore, no votes are allowed on public business in closed session.

We believe the vast majority of elected officials are honest, hard-working individuals who want to do the right thing. They make sure discussions stay focused on the legally allowed subjects mentioned above. And when those discussions stray outside the legally protected lines, strong administrators and board members rein them in.

Unfortunately, there are some that don't. They are the ones for which this legislation was designed.

The proponents of this legislation believed that rather than stifle debate or "chill" discussions, the existence of a tape recorder would act as a deterrent to those public bodies that decided to veer outside the lines. The mere pushing of a tape recorder button would signal to the board, council or commission members to get back to the legally protected subject at hand.

If they chose to continue to discuss an illegal topic and a courageous member asked that it be recorded, a judge would listen to the tape in private to determine if the discussion had indeed violated the law. Then and only then, the tape recording could be turned over to a party seeking KOMA enforcement, such as a member of the public body, the media or an interested citizen.

Unfortunately, the House leadership was more interested in protecting its members from a tough, recorded vote on a controversial topic. Their thinking must have gone something like this: those who supported the bill would be lambasted by their local elected officials; those who voted against it would have to face the wrath of their local newspapers and other media.

The solution was to deny an up or down vote, thus saving the representatives the need to explain to either side of the argument why they voted the way they did.

Don't let them off the hook. Even if they didn't vote publicly on the issue, the folks back home still have a right to know where every legislator stands on this open government issue.

Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association, which has its headquarters in Topeka.

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