Our View: Challenge needed to quorum change
It's been said time and again in Kansas: The public's business should be done in the public eye.
The idea is enacted in Kansas law: "... it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public."
Yet time and again, governmental bodies are taking steps to skirt the law and shut the public out of the public's business. This time, it's the Tonganoxie City Council.
Earlier this month, the council, using home-rule powers granted under the Kansas Constitution, approved a charter ordinance that would change its quorum from three to four members.
Council members might have had the best intentions in mind in approving the charter ordinance, but the increased quorum could open a Pandora's box and leave residents out of the debate on matters of public interest.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act declares that any meeting of a "majority of a quorum" of a public body must be open to the public. Currently, the council has a three-member quorum, which, in effect, bars two council members from getting together privately to discuss city business.
Raising the quorum to four would allow such private meetings.
Council member Tom Putthoff, who championed the change, said he wanted to foster better communication among council members.
Better communication among council members is possible with the change, but we believe the council should aim higher and make better communication with Tonganoxie residents its goal.
Indeed, the quorum change is in direct contradiction with Putthoff's stated intention from a campaign statement he made this past spring. In response to a questionnaire sent by The Mirror to all council candidates, Putthoff said this:
"I believe the most pressing issue facing the city at this time is a lack of trust and confidence between the city government and the community of Tonganoxie. I plan to listen, be open-minded and encourage involvement between the city government and the citizens."
It's difficult for us to see how the council can inspire trust and confidence and encourage public involvement in city government when it allows its members to discuss city business privately.
But even more disturbing is the potential to turn the decision-making process into a back-room barter system among individual council members with the public having little or no input.
As Mayor Mike Vestal pointed out, the quorum change enhances the possibility for collusion and under-the-table deals.
Thankfully, the council does not necessarily have the last word on the charter ordinance. By law, the charter ordinance cannot take effect until 61 days after its final publication. During that time, residents are allowed to collect names of registered voters in Tonganoxie on a petition protesting the ordinance. If more than 10 percent of the number of voters who participated in the spring elections sign the petition, the council either must withdraw the ordinance or schedule a public referendum on it.
A spokesman in the Leavenworth County Clerk's Office said 735 voters participated in Tonganoxie's spring election, meaning a valid petition to fight the charter ordinance would require signatures of at least 74 registered city voters. The deadline would be Oct. 22.
We hope residents see the potential abuses attendant in the quorum change and mount a successful petition drive to challenge what we consider at best as a severe lapse in judgment by the council.