Transparency issues continue for county commission

The Marion County Commission’s conflict over potential improper use of an executive session earlier this month was not the first time the current commission has had a run-in with Kansas laws regarding public meetings.

In April, two of the three commissioners attended what the other commissioner, Dianne Novak, refers to as a “secret meeting” with a potential candidate for director of the Marion County Economic Development Corp.

No public notice was given for the meeting and no minutes were taken, as confirmed by Marion County Clerk Tina Spencer. Novak said she wasn’t made aware of the meeting until close to a month later.

The meeting took place April 5 at the Elgin Hotel. County commissioners Randy Dallke and Kent Becker were in attendance, along with the potential MCCEDC director and various other area officials.

Max Kautsch, Kansas Press Association’s First Amendment attorney, said the meeting was a “clear violation” of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

“It’s as open and shut of a violation as it possibly could be,” Kautsch said.

Under Kansas law, any gathering, in person or through other means, by “a majority of the membership of the public body” regarding “the business or affairs of the public body” is subject to open meetings laws.

“It was a majority of the board and they discussed county business,” Kautsch said of the April 5 meeting. “Therefore, the meeting falls under the open meetings act.”

This means that the commission was required to provide public notice prior to the meeting, according to state statute KSA-75-4318. Because no notice was provided, Kautsch said, the commission violated the law.

Dallke said the conflict regarding this meeting stems from “a whole bunch of miscommunication.”

He said the meeting wasn’t planned in advance and no official decisions were made on behalf of the county.

“It wasn’t much more than ‘Hello, I’m Randy Dallke, nice to meet you,’ and some handshakes,” Dallke said.

Emails obtained by the Free Press from April 4, the day before the meeting, detail local officials’ plans to meet with the potential director April 5 from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Elgin Hotel.

Novak said she filed a Kansas Open Meetings Act violation report to the Kansas Attorney General’s office regarding the April 5 meeting and is awaiting a response.

She said she is also in the process of filing a report regarding another potential Kansas Open Meetings Act violation during a July 6 special meeting.

During the meeting, the commission cited state statute KSA-75-4319 (4) to exit into executive session to discuss information “relating to financial affairs or trade secrets of corporations, partnerships, trusts, and individual proprietorships” regarding bids for the county’s information technology. Joining the commission and county clerk was Craig Williams, a third-party consultant with Blue Valley Communications hired by the county clerk.

As soon as the doors closed, Novak said, the topics of discussion changed.

“We were discussing all the monetary stuff,” Novak said. “We were not supposed to discuss the financials.”

Kautsch said this is a violation of the law.

“There is nothing in the law that says, ‘Let’s go into executive session to talk about taxpayer dollars,’” Kautsch said.

Novak said this, along with a potential conflict of interest with Williams, prompted her to call for all bids to be disregarded.

Kautsch said the trade secrets provision to the Kansas Open Meetings Act allows companies to do work for the government without revealing sensitive information. That wasn’t the case when the commission called for the executive session, he said.

“There’s a good reason for this rule but it sounds like they misused it,” Kautsch said. “They violated the law and they need to be hammered.”

Becker said he and Dallke were acting in accordance with legal advice from the county’s general counsel, Brad Jantz.

“I believe we did everything on the up-and-up,” Becker said.

Transparency problems are common in small government bodies, Kautsch said, and they often stem from a lack of education.

He said the Marion County Commission must make a conscious effort to avoid future violations.

“This stuff wouldn’t happen if they were educated under the Kansas Open Meetings Act,” Kautsch said.

Regardless, Kautsch said, a lack of education does not excuse violating the law.

“The law is the law,” he said.