Danedri Thompson
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The salaries of public employees should never be discussed behind closed doors, according to Mike Merriam an attorney who consults on Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act issues for the Kansas Press Association.
Yet, that has transpired on at least two occasions during the last few weeks, according to council member Larry Fotovich.
“Salary issues can not be discussed in executive session,” Merriam said. “Here’s the general rule of thumb that applies in every issue: policy can not be discussed in executive session. If it’s a policy issue, it has to be discussed in a public session. Fiscal matters, salaries, anything that relates to the budget, that’s all policy.”
At a council meeting July 14, Fotovich objected to having a private discussions.
“The discussion of overall salary structure is not an issue for executive session and should be discussed in the open session,” Fotovich said during the meeting.
The other four members of the council agreed to meet in executive sessions that lasted more than three hours — citing an exemption of KOMA to discuss non-elected personnel.
Although he objected to holding the meeting in private, Fotovich did take part in the closed-door debate.
During the closed-session meeting, Fotovich said council members discussed an ordinance that would raise the salary ranges for a number of positions in which the current salary is at least 10 percent lower than the same position in other communities.
“The premise for the whole meeting was the city did this salary comparison of other cities,” Fotovich said.
Fotovich said Gardner’s salaries were lower than those of cities compared.
“‘Payscale inequality’ was used a lot,” he said.
Fotovich vocalized his objections to increasing city pay scales during the executive session, and said he will make the same statements publicly when council members vote on an ordinance to increase salaries.
“I’m going to be raising the same questions. It’s not like I can’t talk about it because we’re in public,“ he said. “There’s going to be a motion. There’s going to be a discussion and we’re going to take a vote. The only difference is those people would have to show their cards and make statements about why are we raising salaries when we have no indication that people won’t work for what we’re paying.”
Thursday’s meeting was the third in which employee salaries were discussed in private sessions.
Fotovich said he privately wondered about the legality of an executive session on the topic on July 5, but didn’t question it because the city’s attorney, Jim Hubbard, was present.
“The first time, of course, you don’t question, because the attorney was there,” he said. “After that meeting, I went home and checked my little policy manual.”
His research led him to believe the topic shouldn’t have been discussed in executive session, and before a second executive session almost a week later, Fotovich asked whether the debate should be held in public.
“I questioned it, and they said no, because it deals with individuals,” he said. Hubbard did not attend the second session on the topic. Nor was he present during the discussion on Thursday night.
By the third meeting with executive sessions on the topic, Fotovich said he’d done his research and decided to object again. He doesn’t think he’s wrong.
“It all comes back to what was the premise? The premise on the first night was that these job titles earn 10 percent difference or more than similar positions in the samples,” Fotovich said. “That doesn’t require an executive session. How could anyone say, we’ll go ahead and increase the budget by ‘x’ amount and that justify a closed meeting?”
In Thursday’s closed session, Fotovich said he finally learned the budgetary impact of increasing salary ranges — $61,000 from the general fund.
“Shouldn’t people be able to know what the total impact to the budget is at a minimum?“ he said. “Isn’t that something people should know — what we’re adding to the budget in 2012?”
He admits that in a few instances, the names of individual employees were mentioned in the executive session, and Mary Bush, human resources director, and Melissa Mundt, interim city administrator, left the closed meeting during certain points of the discussion.
“When you start talking about an individual’s performance and how their job doesn’t match what their description reads, I can see a gray area (in KOMA) there. But let’s face it, some of those things said in private wouldn’t have been said in public,” Fotovich said. “Pay falls into that policy discussion and you can’t talk about it in a closed session.”
Merriam agreed.
“There’s no gray area. If they went into executive session to discuss personnel matters, that exception to do with individual persons — non-elected persons, and the exception is designed to protect their personal privacy. If they go into executive session to discuss salary items — that’s improper.”