September 2, 2014

Officials wrongly try to rewrite KOMA for socializing

Doug Anstaett
Guest columnist
You just knew after last year’s brouhaha about the governor’s meetings at Cedar Crest that some state legislators would look for a way to retaliate.
Their plan materialized last week in the introduction of two bills, one in the Senate and one in the House, that would eviscerate the underpinnings of the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) if approved.
Apparently, pesky reporters and nosey citizens who believe in open government are making it difficult for public officials to do their jobs.
House Bill 2336 and Senate Bill 200 would rewrite KOMA in such a way that any gathering deemed a “social event” could be used as subterfuge for public discussion of virtually any issue.
Language in HB 2336 would let every public official in the state of Kansas — not just legislators — off the hook if a gathering didn’t lead the body or agency to “deliberate specific matters” under their purview. SB 200 would allow such gatherings as long as discussions didn’t lead to the formulation of policy or to a vote of the body.
KOMA is not just about how a public official votes; it’s about the process that led to that vote. Citizens have a fundamental right to know what influences played a part in a decision, not just whether someone ultimately voted “yes” or “no.”
That’s why we pay close attention to who contributes to campaigns, who pays big bucks to lobby legislators and who shows up at meetings as opponents and proponents of issues.
If such legislation is approved and “social gatherings” are allowed to be used as a cover for previously illegal public discussions of the issues, citizens will be shut out of the political process.
Even more, the “social gathering” opportunities for public officials will skyrocket, emboldening those with influence to peddle and the deep pockets to pay for it.
Let’s hope those state lawmakers advocating open government principles prevail over those who would return our political system to the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” of the past.
Kansans should rise up in protest of this blatant attempt to usurp the power of the people.
Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association.

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