Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Our view: Tapes can build public’s trust

October 25, 2006

Editor's note: This editorial appeared in the Oct. 20, 2006, edition of the Lawrence Journal-World.

Tape-recording public bodies' executive sessions is an important way to build confidence in government, even if such tapes seldom are consulted.

Most executive sessions of elected public bodies probably are called and conducted properly, but how would anyone know if one wasn't? And how would they prove it?

Answering those questions is the impetus behind proposed legislation to require governmental bodies to tape-record executive sessions. The audiotapes would only come into play if someone alleges that an executive session has been used illegally, that is, to discuss business or make decisions that should be made in a public meeting. In the case of such an allegation, the tape of the executive session or sessions in question would be provided to a judge, who would listen to them and determine whether there had been a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. The tapes would be made public only if a violation is found to have occurred.

In its draft legislative agenda for 2007, the Kansas Association of Counties states its opposition to the taping of executive sessions. KAC probably is not the only government group that takes that stand, but it's difficult to understand why government officials would be opposed to a measure that helps build the trust of those they represent.

As it now stands, the only way those outside an executive session ever will know whether something improper occurred is for someone inside the meeting to tell them. That certainly can happen, usually when some member of the public board is unhappy with the conduct or outcome of the executive session. But what if people in the meeting are unaware of the laws regarding executive session or, worse, if everyone in the meeting is aware of the open meeting laws but agrees to sidestep them anyway?

If someone not in attendance -- or even a single person who was at the meeting -- alleges improper conduct, it's easy enough for others to claim nothing improper occurred. That is, of course, unless there is a recording to which officials can turn.

It seems that officials who are following the law would have no fear of recordings that only would confirm they have acted properly. Most of the time, tape-recording executive session would be merely a formality. But occasionally, tapes could be an important tool in settling a dispute on whether an executive session was conducted properly. It's hard to understand why any public officials would be opposed to that.

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