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KOMA still foreign to some

Published on -1/24/2013, 10:51 AM

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Reports that legislators appeared to be getting serious this year about becoming more familiar with the Kansas Open Meetings Act were interpreted as a sign they were standing up for open government and transparency.

Alas, that doesn't appear to be the case.

The almost total lack of understanding displayed by some legislators about the law and its purpose at a recent informational meeting was incredulous and bordered on arrogance.

Nothing was more amazing than statements by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who obviously thinks her constituents and other Kansans don't need to be let in on what's going on under the Capitol dome until it's time to take a vote.

Most people who make even the slightest attempt to track what the Legislature is doing each spring know the heavy work has been done before a bill comes up for a vote in the House or Senate. Legislators just don't walk into those chambers undecided about how they're going to vote on bills ready for final action.

The important information is how legislators reached the decisions that are going to be reflected in their votes. What information was presented, by whom and in what format that led legislators to the positions they are going to endorse when the roll is called? Those are things the taxpayers should know and want to know. And that's why we have the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Wagle and some of her colleagues in the Senate think otherwise.

"I think the intent was to make sure we vote in public," Wagle said during a recent primer on KOMA presented by Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor.

If that statement didn't make Taylor cringe, it should have. Taylor's office last year was asked to investigate several dinners at the governor's residence to which Republican majorities of legislative committees were invited.

Taylor's report clearly stated discussion of public business at such gatherings constituted a KOMA violation, although he called violations uncovered during the investigation "technical" in nature and declined to prosecute.

Some legislators apparently didn't read, or didn't comprehend, Taylor's warning.

When Taylor told senators last week they could violate KOMA if a majority of a committee discussed business even in a social setting, Wagle took exception.

"That's a very broad interpretation you describe to us of how you interpret the law," she said. "We believe conducting business is taking a bill, discussing it, proposing amendments and voting on it."

Wagle's definition of conducting business might be an accurate description what occurs at a committee meeting in the Statehouse, but discussing legislation outside of that setting also constitutes conducting business. It's time she and her colleagues acknowledge that fact.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who said she had experience with KOMA from her service in local government, opined: "We can get together whenever we want, wherever we want, as long as we announce it."

Francisco pretty much had it right, but she forgot to say that what she was describing was a meeting from which the public couldn't be excluded.

Legislators have a long way to go before it can be said they have a clear understanding of KOMA. They should keep working on it.

One thing they shouldn't do is change KOMA so it serves them rather than their constituents.

If any tinkering is needed, stiffer, and mandatory, penalties for violations would be good.

Editorial by the Topeka Capital-Journal

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