By Jon A. Brake
In the end he did not throw the book at them. He didnít even slap their hands.
Tuesday, Riley County Attorney Bill Kennedy told the Free Press that the Manhattan School District did "Make a mistake" but he felt a jury would not convict them and so he would not prosecute.
A year ago Kennedy was ready to throw the book at the School Board for open meetings violations. The School Board members had attended Special Budget Committee Meetings that were closed to the public.
Kennedy went to the Riley County Commission asking for $30,000 to investigate the problem. He would not tell the Commission what the problem was but it was so big it was going to take in many of their families and friends.
The District got out of the situation by making an agreement between Kennedy and Superintendent Tom Hawk that had Hawk writing a letter explaining the problem and agreeing not to meet in closed meetings in the future.
Two months later a meeting was held by the Board negotiating team. Board members Joleen Hill and Roger Brannan are on the team and were in attendance. The meeting started at 4:00 p.m. and at 4:15 new Board member Dorothy Soldan arrived to "listen and learn".
The District e-mailed the Free Press telling of the 4:00 p.m. meeting and the arrival of Soldan. The e-mail was sent at 4:17 just two minutes later.
In an attempt to get around the situation the e-mail stated: "The delay in notification is due to the fact that other than the negotiating team BOE (Board Of Education) members, other members are under no obligation to notify us in advance that they plan to attend."
This is not true and it broke the Open Meetings Act. Anytime three or more members of the School Board attend a meeting where school business is be discussed it must be open to the public and notice must be given.
Kennedy turned the violation over to the Riley County Police Department for investigation.
Board members were told that the only reason they were being investigated was because of the Free Press. Kennedy said that was true.
The investigation did turn up one surprise - The Manhattan Mercury had a reporter at the meeting. This was a negotiating team meeting and it was not open to the public but a Mercury reporter was invited to attend.
During the first violation in February 2001 it was the Mercury that ran story after story about the meeting not being open. Editorials were written taking the District to task over 20 different committees holding meetings but the public could not attend.
At the second violation a reporter was in the room and not one story make the Mercury. No Editorials were written.
Did the Mercury become part of the system? By making such a demonstration were they invited to be a part of the process?
It is the view of the Free Press that the Riley County Attorney could not take this to court. It was a small violation that could have been handled with a public letter. It should not have take eleven months to make a decision. But something should have been done.
What has the School District learned? They have learned that the Kansas Open Meetings Act is nothing of importance. It can be broken over and over and nothing will be done.
The School District has learned they are above the law, and that is