Thursday, February 10, 2005

Open Meetings

Kansas City Star | 02/10/2005 | Legaility of meetings questioned:
Attorney General Phill Kline has told Kansas Board of Education members he would defend them in court if they place stickers on textbooks saying, “evolution is a theory, not a fact.”

Kline acknowledged in a telephone interview Wednesday that he met Tuesday in his office with three conservative board members, and followed it with a second meeting with the board's other three conservatives.

At least two moderate board members and a media attorney questioned if the meetings violated the state's Open Meetings Act. The six represent a quorum of the 10-member board, even though they didn't meet at the same time. Kline, however, said the way he set up the meetings avoided “even the appearance of a violation of the (Kansas) Open Meetings Law.”

He said he called the meetings because he knew the state board was discussing the teaching of evolution and he wanted board members to know where he stood on the stickers.

Kline said he told board members that scientific theories carry some weight, but “evolution, I think everyone would agree, is not a proven fact.”

Conservative board member John Bacon of Olathe said the board members had not asked Kline for his thoughts on stickers. In fact, he said, he didn't think board members had talked about adopting stickers.

Before holding the meetings, Kline said he asked his staff to make sure they would not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The meetings were not “serial” meetings, where information is conveyed from one meeting to the next, which the law prohibits, he said.

“The meetings were called for me to express my opinion not for the board to express theirs. I really couldn't tell you their opinions,” Kline said.

The state board attorney, Dan Biles, said he was not aware of the specifics of the Kline meetings. From what he understands, he said, it does not sound like Kline violated the meetings law.

However, Bernie Rhodes, an attorney who represents The Kansas City Star, had a different interpretation of what constitutes a serial meeting. He cited a 1998 opinion by then Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall that stated “serial meetings” violate the Open Meetings Act because the purpose of meeting with two or three people individually “is to eventually meet with a quorum.”

“Clearly it's an invasion of the Open Meetings Act, which is designed to foster openness in government and was never intended to be circumvented by having private meetings with a public governmental body,” Rhodes said. “That's not just my opinion. That's the attorney general's opinion.”

If Kline didn't intend to give the appearance of violating KOMA, he sure screwed the pooch. Because now we can enjoy litigation and debate over what a serial meeting is. Is it really a meeting if only one person talks? Yes.

And of course, he's taking it upon himself to denigrate evolution as “not a proven fact.” Clearly he's a product of Kansas schools, because if he went to a better school system, he'd know that evolution is regularly and easily demonstrated.

Anyway, KOMA says (via Red State Rabble)

Serial communications between a majority of a quorum of a public body, the purpose of which is to discuss a common topic of business or affairs of that body by the members, constitutes a meeting. Such communications may occur through calling trees, e-mail or an agent of the body.“

If the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss stickers, why have it? Did he not expect that this quorum of the Board would discuss the matter? Is he that dumb, that he would call a meeting and not expect any discussion to result? Whatever his intentions, discussion has resulted, and that discussion was not public. Therefore, laws were broken.

The following comments were submitted to the Science Standards Writing Board by Janis McMillen, President of The League of Women Voters of Kansas. They are part of the public record:

I am Janis McMillen, President of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. I want to commend this committee for its efforts in updating the Science Standards. I know each of you has taken considerable time from your professional and personal lives to devote to this task, and as a scientist, I appreciate the importance of your work.

I also want to applaud you for holding these public hearings around the state – to provide our citizens a better understanding of this topic, and to give them an opportunity to offer input.

I am here not to comment on the science standards, but rather, as a member of the League of Women Voters, to remind all of you of the importance of a very fundamental right in this country – the right of citizens to observe and to learn about its [sic] government. And this is accomplished by having open government. The League has a long history of supporting a citizen's right to know, going back to 1972, when Congress was first working on this topic. We supported the 1976 ”Government in Sunshine“ law to enhance citizens' access to information, and we continue to work with Congress on these issues.

The League of Women Voters believes that democratic government depends upon the informed and active participation of its citizens at ALL levels of government. The League further believes that governmental bodies must protect the citizen's right to know by:

giving adequate notice of proposed actions
holding open meetings, and
making public records accessible

The Kansas statues clearly define what bodies are subject to the requirements of open meetings and open records. Further, there is a clear definition in the statutes, as well as in case law, that describes when an open meeting is required, and other considerations with regard to open meetings and open records.

We hope that all members of this committee, or any other group action on behalf of a public body as defined in the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the Kansas Open Records Act, understand and adhere to both the spirit and the letter of these laws.

Thank you for your attention.

[Signed] Janis McMillen

The Board was put on notice about Open Records and Open Meetings laws, and chose to skirt them.