The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office hopes to complete its investigation into alleged Kansas Open Meetings Act violations by the Gardner City Council before the end of the year.
Steve Howe, district attorney, would not confirm a deadline for wrapping up the investigation, but said he was hopeful his office would conclude its investigation before the end of 2011.
Howe said his investigator will present information to county attorneys who would then make a decision based on the information.
“After we make a decision, we will render an opinion that we will make available to the public,” Howe said.
He would not comment on possible penalties should the DA’s office deem the Gardner City Council violated the law, but a letter to The Gardner News from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office said violators can be fined up to $500. Other penalties include open meetings training.
“There are no statutes that address payment of costs associated with such remedial payment,” Assistant Attorney General Liza Mendoza said in a letter delivered via U.S. Postal Service.
Monetary penalties are rare.
“We do not know of any cases where a court has ordered such civil penalties under the provisions of KOMA or KORA,” Mendoza said in her letter.
However, Montgomery County Attorney Larry Markle recently reached a settlement with members of the Independence Community College Board of Trustees concerning a KOMA violation.
In that case, trustees met in executive session to discuss applicants to fill a vacancy on the board.
“KOMA is clear that executive session would only include discussions of non-elected personnel,” said Andy Taylor, editor of The Montgomery County Chronicle, who filed the complaint.
The county attorney issued a letter to the trustees saying they needed to acknowledge the error and apologize.
Less than a year later, trustees met again in executive session to discuss applicants for a second vacancy on the board. Taylor filed a second complaint.
The county attorney said the violations were wanton attempts to subvert the public interest, and two board members were fined $500 each. The entire six-member board was forced to attend open meetings training.
“Very few cases ever go to court,” Taylor said. “The county attorney or the district attorney determines whether a violation existed and then he or she will have to create an agreement. It doesn’t go to a courtroom or a judge.”
A spokesperson for the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment about any specifics of the local investigation including who filed the complaints and which council members are under investigation.
However, The Gardner News was able to confirm through other sources that an investigator from the D.A.’s Office questioned at least two city officials about a July 14 executive session and about a possible serial meeting violation related to an email.
During a July 14 work session, council member Larry Fotovich objected to going into executive session on five different occasions saying a discussion about overall salary structures should not be discussed in private session.
“It’s something that can be gotten as part of the Kansas Open Records Act and is not something that should be secret,” he said prior to joining the council in executive session.
All other council members voted each time, four-to-one, in favor of retreating behind closed doors.