After an executive session last week, council members offered motions to change the city’s salary ordinance, which sets salaries for city employees, and removed the city administrator Cheryl Harrison-Lee’s position from the ordinance.
When council members retreated behind closed doors, they said it was to discuss the job performance of recent hire, Harrison-Lee. There is no gray area in the Kansas Open Meetings Act on whether that discussion should have been done in private: It was and should have been.
However, the discussion to remove the city administrator’s position from the salary ordinance removing the salary cap should have taken place in public view.
We understand that sometimes it’s difficult to separate those discussions; however, under Kansas law, we believe that’s what was warranted.
Gardner’s city administrator will now be eligible for higher pay than the ceiling set by the salary ordinance.
Ironically, District Attorney Steve Howe found the council guilty of violating KOMA when they privately discussed, through a series of emails, almost the exact same issue.
In August of 2011, Mayor Dave Drovetta sent an email asking if the council would be willing to bump the salary cap of the city adminstrator’s position up to $110,000 in order to attract more candidates for the job. It was vacant at the time.
Four of five council members responded to the email. Howe called it a KOMA violation, but declined to file action against the council.
Here we are, a few years later, and once again, the council has taken action that in effect eliminates the cap by making the job a consultant.
The discussion took place behind closed doors despite a very clear message from Howe, who said in a January 2012 letter to the council: “ “In my opinion, this means you cannot discuss overall pay increases for certain positions in an executive session that is convened to discuss non-elected personnel. This violates the Kansas Open Meetings Act.””
By the way, that letter was also sent to the city’s attorney,  who also sat in the closed session last week but apparently did not advise the council discussion should be limited to the administrator’s review and salary rather than straying into general salary/ordinance discussion.
The session was convened to discuss the job performance of non-elected personnel, but when council returned they voted 5-0 to change the salary ordinance. What this means to the average taxpayer is that the city administrator’s salary can be increased without the requirement that a salary range be published, similar to USD 231.
We suspect that change, which ultimately resulted in our city administrator making $124,000 annually, was discussed beyond the reach of the public.
We recognize it is difficult sometimes to separate personnel issues from general policies. But this one seems pretty clear to us. The council should have had two separate discussions – one in private related to the job performance of a city employee – and one in public related to changing an ordinance.