Archive for Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Local leaders, attorneys find problems with taping executive sessions

March 13, 2002

Local government leaders said they were opposed to a bill calling for the taping of closed-door sessions and were pleased to see it dropped by the Kansas Legislature.

Senate Bill 529 would require governing bodies to tape their executive sessions.

The recordings would allow a judge to review the tapes amid accusations of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

The bill was reportedly withdrawn from the Senate calendar because there was no support.

"I don't think (S.B. 529 is) a good idea," said Julian Espinoza, a Basehor City Council member. "There are certain things that should be considered a private issue.

"I would not be in favor of it. In my time on the City Council, 99.9 percent of what we discuss is out in the open anyway. The only reason we go into (executive session) is to talk about matters of confidentiality."

Under Kansas sunshine laws, governing bodies must meet in public except when discussing matters of non-elected personnel and pending litigation.

The law also states no binding agreements can be made when meeting in executive sessions.

Basehor Mayor Bill Hooker agreed with Espinoza."If you do that, it's possible the information could get to those that aren't supposed to have it," Hooker said.

Normally, the Basehor City Council has one executive session per month, Hooker said.

Basehor city officials weren't the only local leaders opposed to S.B. 529.

Leavenworth County Commissioner Joe Daniels said he and the other two commissioners were also against the bill.

"It's kind of like the Supreme Court," Daniels said. "They don't come out and argue their cases in the open."

Basehor City Attorney John Thompson said he was not in favor of the proposed bill because it would infringe on attorney-client privilege.

"A client, whether an individual or a municipality, needs to be able to discuss legal matters with the confidence that such matters will remain confidential and not be subject to publication," he said. "Only then can the council members and their attorney discuss matters with the candor necessary to have all the issues fairly considered."

Thompson also said the bill would leave governments open to lawsuits if the information discussed in the private meetings ever became public.

"There is always the risk that discussions if made public could be the basis for a lawsuit or could result in alienation between council members and the city staff," he said.

The League of Kansas Municipalities was also opposed to the bill.

"The League is opposed to that kind of bill," said Sandy Jacquot, legal counsel for the League of Kansas Municipalities,. "We believe it has a lot of problems.

"There are a number of issues that it make it very impractical."

Jacquot said the bill would have a "chilling effect" on governments during executive sessions and also that there isn't a need for S.B. 529.

"No one can point to widespread abuses that would warrant that kind of legislation," she said.

While the problem may not be widespread, accusations of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act have been made locally.

The Wyandotte County Attorney's Office recently filed a civil petition against all seven members of the Piper School Board alleging they violated five counts of the Open Meetings Act.

The district attorney claims school board members made a binding agreement and discussed matters during executive session that should have been announced in public.

The executive sessions in question allegedly dealt with Piper High School biology teacher Christine Pelton and her decision to give a failing grade to 28 students who allegedly plagiarized an assignment.

After taking parent complaints, the Piper School Board forced Pelton to give partial credit and decrease the value of the project.

Pelton has since resigned in protest over the school board's decision.

The Piper School Board has said it went into executive session because it was discussing non-elected personnel and to protect the privacy of the students in regards to the plagiarism incident.

The bill was backed by the Kansas Press Association, seeking to ensure governing entities are practicing open government.

The bill was modified from allowing video taping to audio taping and reduced the length of time a governing body would be required to keep a recorded copy on file from one year to four months.

The bill died coming out of committee.

The KPA has vowed to have the bill amended into another piece of legislation. However, nothing has transpired in the legislature.

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