Archive for Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Attorney: City council violated meetings law

December 15, 2004

The Tonganoxie City Council on Monday violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act when members took action during executive session, according to a Topeka attorney.

The open meetings act, designed to protect the interests of the public by guarding against secret meetings, clearly states that city councils cannot take binding action in closed-door sessions.

Monday night, the four members of the five-member council who attended the regular meeting went into executive session to discuss non-elected personnel -- a move that is legal under the open meetings law. Joining council members and Mayor Dave Taylor in the closed-door meeting were acting Police Chief John Putthoff, police Sgt. Brian Daily and City Attorney Mike Kelly.

Council members went into executive session for 15 minutes. Then they asked for another 15 minutes -- and stayed in executive session for nearly another 30 minutes.

Upon emerging from the closed-door session, council member Velda Roberts said, "I move that we reopen the meeting with a notation that action was taken by the council."

The motion was seconded by council member Kathy Graveman, and passed.

City Clerk Kathy Bard questioned that council members took action in the closed-door session.

And a representative of The Mirror newspaper asked, "On what grounds?"

The city attorney said, "It's a personnel matter."

While city councils and other elected bodies can meet behind closed doors to discuss personnel matters -- and other issues -- they cannot take binding action in those closed-door meetings, according to the open meetings law.

"Can't do it," said Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney who specializes in media law, including the open meetings law. "Can't take any binding action in executive session. ... It's plainly illegal."

While no binding action can be taken, Merriam said, the council could reach consensus in executive session.

"They can reach a consensus and come back into open meeting and vote," he said.

Attempts on Tuesday to reach Kelly were unsuccessful. The council members in the executive session were Graveman, Roberts, Steve Gumm and Ron Cranor. Council member Emmett Wetta was absent from Monday's meeting.

Violations of the open meetings law can carry fines of up to $500.

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