Johnson County commissioners to respond Thursday to attorney general complaint they violated Kansas Open Meetings Act

Johnson County commissioners will decide Thursday how to respond to an allegation they violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by discussing general employee pay raises in an executive session outside of public view.

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara filed a complaint against her colleagues with Attorney General Kris Kobach’s office in July alleging the violation at a June 29 meeting. She and two other commissioners voted against holding the closed meeting, but four other commissioners voted to proceed with it.

Elected bodies are allowed to go into closed session to discuss such things as specific employees, but matters of broad public policy must be dealt with in open meetings under the law.

If the AG finds a violation it could result in a mere agreement not to violate the law going forward, but could also include individual fines of $500 and/or mandatory training in the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).

“It’s my opinion that we were reviewing issues that should have been reviewed in the public,” O’Hara told The Heartlander this week, adding it’s not the first time she’s had a concern over possibly improper private meetings by the commission. On a previous occasion she reached out to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, who she said invited her to KOMA training he conducts periodically.

“It’s a mystery to me as to why we are going into executive sessions, in my opinion in violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act,” O’Hara says. She says the plan for 6% county employee pay raises discussed in private, and later approved in an open meeting, was of great public interest and not properly discussed in private.

O’Hara notes that commission Chairman Mike Kelly has previously ordered live-streaming of meetings to be halted when citizens are allowed to speak during the public comments period of meetings – and that he previously attempted to approve too much county business through a rapid-fire “consent agenda” that doesn’t allow for discussion or debate.

Another of Kelly’s rules, she says, is that there is no debate unless there’s a motion on the floor.

“It appears that he does not like dissent. And I will tell you that it appears that his goal is to get through the meetings as quickly as possible,” she says, though adding, “he has not been able to streamline the meetings as much as he wanted.”

“We are fully cooperating with the Attorney General’s Office,” Kelly said in a statement, “and I trust the veracity of this investigation. I appreciate that our team is handling these allegations directly and remain confident in this process.”

Each commissioner was asked to fill out questionnaires from both the county and AG about the complaint and the June 29 executive session.

A local newspaper report on the KOMA brouhaha characterizes O’Hara as “conservative” while failing to note any other commissioner’s ideology. But while O’Hara says “the division within the commission is pretty well-documented,” she says she doesn’t want her colleagues punished.

“If the attorney general determines that we violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act, I just simply want us to be aware that we need to be much more vigilant and focused on making sure that we are adhering to the letter of the law and that we are as transparent as possible,” she tells The Heartlander. “That’s all I’m asking.”

Besides, she says she hopes the time-consuming process of responding to the attorney general – which has included not only the questionnaires and several board discussions, but also much staff work on providing records surrounding the June 29 incident – would be enough to deter future violations of the law.


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