For anyone who regularly follows Gardner politics, it’s no surprise that members of the Gardner City Council twice violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe recently notified council members that they had violated the act – once, by discussing employee salaries in executive session and again in a series of emails, in which Mayor Dave Drovetta asked council members whether they would be willing to increase the maximum salary for the vacant city administrator position by $10,000.
There is much to learn from Howe’s decision and letter, from the Mayor’s response and from the response of Gardner citizens.
We agree with Howe’s conclusion that the serial emails violated KOMA. In his letter to council, he cited an AG’s opinion from 1998 that the serial meeting violated the act, because the emails violated “both the spirit and letter of the KOMA since the public was excluded.” In addition, serial meetings were outlawed in 2009. The emails weren’t merely a violation of the spirit of the law, they were a direct violation of KOMA.
As any prosecutor knows, without penalty there is little incentive to follow the law. Howe issued an opinion, but zero penalties. He could’ve issued $500 fines. And they would be well deserved, especially for Mayor Dave Drovetta. This isn’t his first foray into the world of KOMA violations. Back in 2005, when he was a council member, he and members of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners met in secret meetings designed to limit access of the public to discuss the intermodal. From emails, citizens and the press learned they intended to meet privately in a series of meetings in groups small enough to keep the public out. A leaked email stopped what could have been a KOMA violation.
The Mayor also started the chain of serial communications that Howe said is a violation of state statute. In the email, he asked for separate response from council members.
“I’m writing each of you individually; please respond as soon as practical,” Drovetta wrote.Based on this history, we have little expectation that current leadership will follow the law.
Strong leaders admit and learn from mistakes, take appropriate action or apologize and move forward, but the Mayor issued a statement with nary an apology, an admission of wrong doing or a promise to do better.
“As we learned in the training provided by the attorney general, each circumstance is unique and should be reviewed against the requirements of KOMA in appropriate context,” Drovetta wrote in a statement to the press.  “We also learned that each circumstance can reviewed by different attorneys and different conclusions can be reached.”
The statement he issued makes excuses – specifically that different attorneys may interpret the law in different ways. There are two attorneys whose opinions matter here – the District Attorney, who is the authority and city attorney Jim Hubbard, who is paid to advise the council.  While Hubbard was (strangely) absent during the meeting in which council members violated KOMA, if his interpretation of the city council members’ actions that night are in disagreement with Howe’s, he should issue a statement.
And if Hubbard’s opinion on KOMA and Kansas statute differs from that of the ultimate authority in Johnson County, maybe it’s time for the city to seek legal counsel more likely to correctly interpret laws and not bring embarasssment upon our city.
It’s been years since the city council has sought bids for new counsel. It’s time for the city to take bids on new legal representation.
The response of the citizens of Gardner to the most recent KOMA violations has also been surprising. This is an electorate that in 2010 recalled two members of the council for perceived KOMA violations. The same District Attorney issued an opinion in that case saying the duly elected council members did not violate the statute, but to date, although we’ve heard rumors, there seems to be no outcry for another recall. And although violation of the open meetings law can be grounds for ouster-  an action that requires a filing from the Attorney General or the District Attorney – that seems unlikely without public pressure.
So it’s city business as usual in Gardner politics: verbal altercations, lack of strong leadership and failure to accept responsibility, learn and move forward.
What’s next, a fist fight – oh wait, that’s already happened.