The Kansas Open Meetings Act [K.S.A. 75-4317 et seq.] specifies that in closing an open meeting, any governmental body subject to the Act must pass a formal motion in which is stated (1) the subjects to be discussed in the closed meeting, (2) the justification for closing the meeting and (3) the time and place at which the open meeting is to resume. The purpose of this requirement is to enable Kansas citizens to know enough about what their elected officials are doing so that they may respond appropriately.
To serve its purpose, a required motion needs to give citizens meaningful information about the subjects being discussed.
Examination of the 2014 minutes of the governing bodies of the 10 most populous counties and the 10 most populous cities of Kansas reveals that 631 closed sessions were held for a total of at least 240 hours. All of the governing bodies except for the Manhattan City Commission closed meetings at times without disclosing any meaningful information about the subjects they were to discuss. In doing so, they conducted at least 200 hours of governmental business in complete secrecy.
By conducting a substantial portion of their business in complete secrecy, these governmental bodies acted in opposition to the clearly-stated purpose of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, that "the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public." Their actions are inconsistent with the respect most citizens of Kansas want shown for open government. The study findings, a legal analysis, and a proposed amended Open Meetings Act are available in the report Governmental Business in Secrecy in Kansas.
Prior to the enactment of the Open Meetings Act, governmental bodies conducted governmental business in complete secrecy at will. Now almost all of the governing bodies of the largest cities and counties in Kansas pass meaningless motions and then conduct governmental business in complete secrecy. The Kansas Open Meetings Act should be amended to require that when closing an open meeting, a governmental body state the specific subjects to be discussed in sufficient detail to allow members of the public to identify the specific issues that the governing body intends to discuss in the closed session.
2015 Legislative History: In 2015 Sen. Francisco introduced Senate Bill No. 165 amending the Open Meetings Act. It was referred to the Committee on Ethics and Elections and remained there until the end of the 2015 legislative session.
2016 Legislative History: At the request of Senator Marci Francisco, the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced Senate Bill 360, an amendment to the Kansas Open Meetings Act, on January 25, 2016. A Judiciary Committee hearing was held on February 2nd. At the hearing, Sen. Francisco explained the purpose of Senate Bill 360, Alan Cowles, M.D., explained some of the background of the bill, and several persons representing interested organizations spoke in favor of the Bill. A representative of the League of Kansas Municipalities was neutral with regard to support. No one spoke against it. Because concerns were raised about specific wording, a meeting was held on February 8th, at which those concerns were addressed and, we believe, quickly and easily resolved.
At the request of Senator Marci Francisco, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means introduced Senate Bill 487 on March 3, 2016. This was a revision of Senate Bill 360 that incorporated the changes agreed to in the February 8th meeting. On March 4, 2016, that bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It remained there until the end of the 2016 legislative session.
2017 Legislative History: In January 2017, Sen. Francisco, a Democrat, and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican, introduced the amendment for the 2017 legislative session. This time it was designated Senate Bill 70. We thank Sen. Francisco and Sen. Baumgardner.
An opinion on the fiscal implications of Senate Bill 360, by Shawn Sullivan, Director of the Budget, dated February 1, 2017, raised concerns about a possible increase in the workload of the Office of the Attorney General but concluded that "a fiscal effect cannot be determined" and is not reflected in the 2018 Budget. (details here)
Senate Bill 70 was referred to the Committee on Federal and State Affairs and a hearing was held on February 2nd. No witness opposed the bill. We thank all those who testified or sent letters of support. On February 8th, two small amendments were made and the amended Senate Bill 70 was passed on to the full senate with a recommendation that it be passed. On March 16th, Senate Bill 70 was passed by the Senate with a vote of 39 to 1 and sent on to the House.
In the House, Senate Bill 70 was referred to the Committee on Federal and State Affairs and a hearing was held on March 28th. No opponents appeared. Meanwhile, a bill proposing a small amendment to the Open Meetings Act adding a new justification for closing meetings of the Governor's Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board had been introduced in the House on January 23rd and passed on February 22nd as House Bill 2128. This bill was sent to the Senate, where Sen. Francisco introduced, and the Senate passed, an amendment inserting the contents of Senate Bill 70. The contents of Senate Bill 70 were then replaced by the contents of a bill concerning the safety of amusement park rides (previously House Bill 2389). On March 29th, the revised House Bill 2128 was passed by the Senate with a unanimous vote. A conference committee then combined House Bill 2301, concerning open records, and House Bill 2128, concerning open meetings. The Conference Committee Report was adopted on Wednesday, May 3rd by the Senate with a vote of 40 to 0 and on Friday, May 5th by the House with a vote of 118 to 3. It was enrolled and sent to the Governor on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. The Governor signed House Bill 2301 on Monday, May 15, 2017. It became law on July 1, 2017.
Followup - Study of the Last Half of 2018: In order to determine the degree of compliance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act since the 2017 amendments went into effect, we reviewed the July-through-December 2018 minutes of the same governing bodies as previously reviewed. The methods were kept as close to those used in the 2016 study as possible.In 2018, the time spent by City and County governments in closed meetings continued to vary widely, from none (for the Manhattan City Commission) to 32.2 hours per year (for the Salina City Commission). The time spent by these groups doing business in secrecy also varied widely, from none (for the Manhattan City Commission) to 24.5 hours per year (for the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners). 90% of the governing bodies closed meetings at one time or another without giving any information about the subjects they were discussing, down only 5% from 95% in 2014. 60% of the total time spent in closed sessions was spent doing business in secrecy, down from 83% in 2014.
Although we see some improvement, we now have the challenge of getting all of our boards and commissions to comply with the amended Act.