The ruckus over Gov. Sam Brownback’s recent dinner parties for Republican lawmakers, which has made for good reading lately, is a case study in what happens when people in power inflame those who buy ink by the barrel and have Internet bandwidth to spare.
Importantly, however, this is more than just a face-down between the Statehouse press corps and the governor.
All Kansans who care about the democratic process should share the concern about transparency in state government. All Kansans should be perplexed by the defensive reactions of the governor’s staff and the Republican legislative leadership to questions about compliance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
The Topeka Capital-Journal lit the match when it reported that Republican members of 13 legislative committees had been invited to dinners at Cedar Crest, the governor’s residence, during January. The dinners did not appear on official schedules and, in some cases, a majority of a committee’s membership was present.
To people familiar with the KOMA, these two factors raise red flags. The law says, essentially, that if a voting majority of a committee gathers and discusses the business of government, the conversation constitutes a meeting for which the public must be notified and given an opportunity to attend.
More to the point, it’s against the law for a committee majority to meet secretly to discuss the people’s business. Quoting lawmakers who attended the dinners, journalists have reported that committee matters were discussed at some of the meetings.
Now the Shawnee County District Attorney is investigating for violations of the law. If transgressions are confirmed, legislators who attended the dinners could be subject to civil fines of up to $500.
While the law outlines specific requirements for open meetings, Republicans — from the governor’s office to the legislative leadership — are missing a larger political point. Not only is it important that they comply with the letter of the law, but elected officials serve the people best when they avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Transparency in government is about both conducting business in the light of day and instilling confidence in the public that government isn’t hiding something.
The official responses to the district attorney’s inquiry fall far short of that standard. The governor and his staff insisted the dinners were social events not subject to the law. It seems clear, however, that lawmakers were invited to Cedar Crest as members of specific committees, not because they were Brownback’s social acquaintances.
The governor’s office also declined to release guest lists for the dinners, requiring instead that a reporter seek them through the Kansas Open Records Act. Throwing up an unnecessary hurdle to full disclosure raises questions about the governor’s cooperation with the inquiry.
In the strangest twist, House Speaker Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson advised legislators not to cooperate immediately with the inquiry. Then he and Senate President Steve Morris of Holcomb argued that lawmakers are entitled to immunity during the legislative session. They also claimed that legislators’ documents about the meetings, which the DA requested, can be exempt under the KOMA. While they said they would voluntarily, though begrudgingly, comply with the investigation, their arguments about their own rights are red herrings.
Lost in this discussion has been the supremacy of the people’s right to open government. Everything else is obfuscation that merely fuels concern about what, exactly, went on at the dinners and why it’s such a big secret.
Ironically, the governor’s office and the legislative leadership have made sure this story will not go away.
Gwyn Mellinger is a professor and chair of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University.