Brownback, legislators snub Kansans with ‘social’ dinners

Why is it that when people are elected to office, and it doesn’t matter whether Republican or Democrat, their self-imposed power and knowledge seems to go to their head. After campaigning for a more open and transparent government, they become secretive and turn to private meetings and strike backroom deals; that they somehow think they are above the law that they apply to the people they serve.

And it happens right here in Kansas where earlier this year Gov. Sam Brownback and the nearly all Republican legislators he invited to dinner “social” meetings where policy and the people’s business were discussed and debated behind closed doors.

Brownback and his cronies thumbed their noses at Kansans’ right to know and the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).

Bottom line is they broke the law.

That’s not only my view, but that also was the determination recently by Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat, who was forced to look into the dinner meetings after Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Press Association (KPA) attorney Mike Merriam filed a formal complaint earlier this year.

Brownback had seven “private” dinners at Cedar Crest last January in which, as an individual, he “invited” members of 13 legislative committees and more than 90 legislators. And during all seven, Taylor said Brownback and the legislators broke the law by violating KOMA.

As an example, Taylor, in his 10-page report, said Brownback invited Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, to the Jan. 9 dinner. King jwas the co-chairman of a study committee on pensions, and the governor wanted an update on the committee’s work. After King’s presentation, there was a question-and-answer session, according to the report.

Other dinners “remain shrouded in incomplete recollections and vague memories” the report said. And without better cooperation from legislators, Taylor said he couldn’t prove there were substantial KOMA violations.

Translation?

The case is closed on Brownback and legislators who broke the law — no penalties.

KOMA was enacted to prevent a majority of elected officials from gathering secretly in one place to discuss state business behind closed doors without first giving public notice. The law states that a gathering of a committee’s majority is a meeting if the public business is discussed and lawmakers interact. Brownback invited select committees and elected officials that made up a majority and he did so without giving public notice.

A $500 fine can be levied to elected officials who break the law.

But that’s not going to happen. Taylor said because of legislators’ “collective amnesia” about what was discussed at the dinners, he could only prove “technical” violations had taken place. As a result, he slapped them on their collective hands and told them not to do it again and added that the negative publicity elected officials have received because of this investigation certainly will cause them to adhere to KOMA in the future.

Brownback’s office was quick to respond saying in a released statement that read, “The district attorney now has confirmed there were no substantive KOMA violations and that the governor and his staff clearly understood KOMA and took the appropriate precautions.”

That statement prompted another news conference by Taylor, who said he thinks a number of “substantial” KOMA violations occurred.

“My expectation would be that the governor and that the leadership of the Kansas Legislature would never want to find themselves in this trick bag again,” Taylor said.

A key problem is that, as an individual, an elected official such as Brownback is not subject to KOMA. The seven dinners were nothing more than social gatherings, according to his office, although Taylor’s report said that Brownback and his aides verbally warned legislators about violating KOMA.

According to Doug Anstaett, executive director for the KPA, holding individuals responsible for calling what could become or does become an illegal meeting is a flaw in KOMA that needs to be changed.

“When the highest elected public official calls the meetings, I think it’s time to look at it,” Anstaett told the Associated Press. “When the governor calls and asks you to go to a meeting, most people say yes because of his position of authority.”

Merriam was disappointed with Taylor’s lack of action against Brownback and other legislators.

“When Taylor backs down and takes a powder on the thing, they think it’s perfectly OK, what they did,” he told the Associated Press.

What’s needed, he said, is a court order or an agreement produced under the threat of a potential order that would spell out in writing what violations occurred and how they could be avoided.

Otherwise, Brownback or some other governor is going to call the same kind of dinner meetings in the future, Merriam said.

Merriam is absolutely correct. Not only will elected officials do it again, but the more they are allowed to get away with breaking the law, the more they will take advantage of their elected status and shield what they do in locked, backroom “social” events.

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