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Proposal to loosen KOMA is ill-advised

Bill stems from meetings at Cedar Crest

By The Mercury

Some Kansas legislators don’t like the constraints the Kansas Open Meetings Act places on what they can discuss and when they can discuss it. One of them, state Rep. Jim Howell, a Derby Republican, wants to relax the Open Meetings Act to give lawmakers more flexibility.

Rep. Howell has introduced a bill under which the Open Meetings ACT (KOMA) would not apply at social gatherings at which a body “does not deliberate specific matters that, at the time of the exchange, the participating members expect to come before the body or agency at a later date.”

The proposal, which also would require that casual or formal meetings of elected officials be “prearranged” before coming under the purview of the Open Meetings Act, stems from a succession of controversial dinners that Gov. Sam Brownback hosted at Cedar Crest last year.  Those dinners were solely for Republican legislators, who were invited by committee.

Among issues discussed were possible education lawsuits in the future, which now is the subject of Republican legislative efforts to amend the Kansas Constitution. After investigating, Shawnee County Attorney Chad Taylor concluded that technical violations of the Opening Meetings Act had occurred during the dinners but that in discussing issues before the Legislature, lawmakers had not intended to circumvent the law.

What Rep. Howell’s proposal would do is make clear that discussions of pending issues or even of pending legislation at private gatherings are legal. That notion should be rejected outright because it would exclude citizens from participating in the operation of their government.

Rep. Howell told the Topeka Capital-Journal that the Open Meetings Act is “starting to affect our ability to function because we’re living under the threat of the Shawnee County prosecutor.”

No, Rep. Howell, lawmakers are simply being asked to live and operate under the present law, which requires that such gatherings — including dinners at the governor’s mansion and other social occasions at which lawmakers discuss the public’s business — be open to the public. Allowing “discussions” but not “deliberations” of pending matters at social gatherings would make a mockery of the Open Meetings Act and allow just about any topic to be fair game for elected officials in any setting.

Rep. Howell’s proposal would apply to all governing bodies in Kansas, including city and county commissions and school boards.

In our view, if the Legislature wants to amend KOMA, it should do so in a fashion that more clearly prohibits discussion of the public’s business at private functions.

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