Dozens of Kansas legislators questioned about private dinners with Gov. Sam Brownback at his official residence weren’t well versed in the state’s Open Meetings Act, transcripts of their interviews show.
The lawmakers were interviewed as part of a prosecutor’s investigation of the dinners. Few had read the open meetings law, and most reported receiving no formal training on how to avoid violating it, the transcripts showed. They had little written guidance other than a section in their legislative guidebook.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor released transcripts of interviews conducted by two deputies with 53 legislators regarding seven dinner meetings held in January at Cedar Crest, the governor’s residence. The lawmakers sat on 13 legislative committees and almost all were Republicans, like Brownback.
Taylor, a Democrat, concluded last month that legislators violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act, scolded them publicly and admonished them to become better informed about the law’s requirements. But he did not pursue further action, saying he could prove only “technical” violations.
An exchange between Taylor’s deputies and Rep. Joe Scapa, a Wichita Republican, was typical of the interviews. Scapa was asked about two dinners to which he was invited, and he said the law wasn’t violated. Pressed to explain, he told Taylor’s deputies, “Because that’s what I believe.”
“I don’t know how to explain it to you, but that’s what I know,” Scapa said, according to the transcript.
Despite not being well versed in the Open Meetings Act, most of the legislators interviewed said they were confident they hadn’t violated it. Many said the dinners didn’t feel like “meetings” because food was served, and it was a social atmosphere.
When one of Taylor’s deputies asked Sen. Terrie Huntington, a Fairway Republican, whether she understood that the meetings law applied to social gatherings, she said, “I did not.”
The Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a majority of a legislative body from meeting without giving the public notice and access to the event. A gathering of a committee’s majority is a meeting if public business is discussed and lawmakers interact.
Officials who knowingly violate the law can be fined up to $500 per incident, though only a county prosecutor or the attorney general can seek such a sanction from a court. However, a prosecutor or private citizen also can go to court for an order for corrective action.
Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the “discussion” standard isn’t meant to limit legislators but ensure they consider all options in pursuing policy.
“Having members of the public involved during the discussion phase guarantees that all those options are considered,” Anstaett said. “It also leads to more buy-in from the public when tough decisions are made.”
Some of the legislators interviewed by Taylor’s deputies said that while they understood they could violate the law in social settings, they believed they would have to take binding action or have detailed policy discussions.
Told by one of Taylor’s deputies that a mere discussion of business could be a violation, Sen. Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said, “If you were to interpret it that broadly, then I would say all our social events violate the Open Meetings Act.”
Most of the legislators who were interviewed seemed receptive to the idea of more open meetings training, which was recommended by the district attorney’s office in its final report. Anstaett said the press association would help.
“We’re going to ask the attorney general to work with us, the cities and the counties to come up with new language that re-emphasizes the importance of meeting in the open,” Anstaett said. “I know the organizations that work with these local units of government are training their members on the law.”