I noticed a little more discussion of the open meetings law at the Wyandotte County level, as preparations were being made to appoint a new Unified Government commissioner. The UG Commission went over the rules concerning open meetings at a recent meeting.
It’s not surprising that Wyandotte County held an informational session on the open meetings law, sometimes called the sunshine law, with four new commissioners on the UG board.
During the past year, the city officials of Mission, Kan., came under fire for an open meetings violation concerning their communications about an appointment. It also was a year where Gov. Sam Brownback’s series of dinner meetings with legislators were criticized.
I heard Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe discuss the open meetings law and Mission case at a Kansas City Press Club meeting about a half-year ago.
Although it didn’t come up at the meeting I attended, I have wondered if the increasing absence of newspaper coverage, including the absence of the Johnson County Sun, has contributed to local governments forgetting to comply with the open meetings laws.
While lawyers and legislators debate the finer points of the open meetings act, I am glad to see local governments are thinking about the open meetings law; I hope they appreciate its role in democracy.
Democracy with a small “d” is the idea that people can govern themselves, and in its ancient form, residents attended meetings in Greek city-states to make government decisions. Anything that gets us closer to that model is admirable.
The Founding Fathers in America often looked at the press, and at public participation and free speech, as a check on government power. They had seen enough of corrupt monarchies to build specific freedoms into the Bill of Rights. While we don’t have the same level of ancient Greek involvement in government, we do have a recognition that citizens have to know what’s going on in order to make informed choices.
Today the open meetings law in Kansas allows residents to attend the public meetings of their government and see what’s happening. There are often public comment periods where they can express their own opinions. The open meetings laws exist for everyone, not just the media.
In my many years in this field, I have noticed that political parties in power often don’t like the sunshine laws, while those who are not in power sometimes become their champion. Journalists, for the most part, are consistently in favor of the open meetings and records laws.
Unfortunately, there are many exceptions that allow the meetings to be closed. Personally, in my experience through the years, I think the Kansas open meetings law is like a sieve full of exceptions for almost everything.
However, I still like the law’s opening, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.” Since openness is the policy of the state, local governments should be thinking of ways to make meetings more open and accessible to the public, and secrecy should be discouraged as much as possible.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.