October 21, 1999

By Jon A. Brake

City Government: Move From Open Meetings Leads To Turmoil, Petitions

The City Commission is out-of-touch with the citizens of Manhattan and that
is the way they want it. And, if these Commissioners stay in office, that
is the way it will stay.

For the last three years the Commission has worked and planned to remove
the citizens from the process of government.

Conducting city business in the open is hard to do, but it is the state
law. This Commission has worked to get around the Kansas Open Meetings Act
and the Kansas Open Records Act.

The Kansas Open Meetings Act requires that when a majority of a quorum are
to be at a pre-arranged meeting, the public must be notified. For more than
forty-years it took three City Commissioners to hold a meeting. Three being
a quorum. A majority of  two could not discuss city business.

Two years ago this Commission passed a Charter Ordinance which raised the
number to conduct a meeting (quorum) from three to four. This was passed to
get around the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

As it stands today, two Manhattan City Commissioners can conduct business
on the phone, in person or by E-mail. They can and they do. They do not
want to conduct city business in the open.

Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall give an example of a calling tree in
Opinion No. 98-26: “A public board needs to discuss an issue that the
members believe is too sensitive to be discussed in public, but for which
there is no statutory authority for an executive session. The chair
proposes each of the members telephone the others, one by one, to discuss
their opinions on the issue. If the board has six or more members, a
majority of a quorum is at least three. A calling tree would involve no
more than two board members speaking to one another at the same time. The
chair would then call each of the members to “survey” their opinions. A
formal vote would be taken at the next open meeting.”

“Such serial communications could also occur through e-mail. One member
e-mails another, who adds to the e-mail and sends it along to the next. The
mail may pass in circles. Or, there may be a formal discussion board or
LISTSERV (TM) set up where each member automatically receives messages
posted by the others, and can comment on the messages. In this way the
members can exchange their thoughts on an issue without ever gathering or
communicating in “real time.” Stovall said.

Stovall ends Opinion No. 98-26 with this: “In summary, a series of meetings
each of which involves less that a majority of a quorum of a public body,
but collectively totaling a majority of a quorum, at which there is a
common topic of discussion of the business or affairs of that body
constitutes a meeting for purposes of the KOMA.”

E-mail between three Manhattan City Commissioners constitutes a meeting.
The Free Press has requested e-mails between three or more Commissioners,
but the request was denied.

The Free Press was told that the City did not have a way of keeping

The regular City Commission meeting are held on the first and third
Tuesdays of each month. Two years ago, the City Commission started holding
a  meeting before the regular meeting.

At 5:30 the Commission and Staff meet in a back room to eat and discuss
City business. This meeting is called the “Get-Around  Meeting” by the
Manhattan Free Press, because it is called at such an hour that the public
will not attend and they get around the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Is it any
wonder one Commissioner will have a recall election on December 7 and
citizens have put together a petition to change the form of government?
This Commission is out-of-touch with the citizens of Manhattan, and that is
the way they want it.

They changed the number of a quorum so they could talk and conduct business
away from the citizens of Manhattan.

They use e-mail and the telephone without keeping a record, again to
conduct business away from the citizens of Manhattan. They hold a
“Get-Around” meeting before their regular Commission meeting to conduct
business away from the citizens of Manhattan.

 The citizens have a right to  know what is going on in city government. It
the Commissioners do not want to conduct business in the open, they should
not be in office.