Phone calls between commissioners did not violate sunshine act
KANSAS — Telephone calls between Seward County commissioners to discuss public business did not violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act because they were not “meetings,” the state Supreme Court ruled in mid-January.
The high court said that there is no common- law right of the public or press to attend meetings of governmental bodies. Any such right is created by the open meetings statute only.
The statute defines meetings as any prearranged “gathering or assembly” of a quorum of a group, or two commissioners in this case.
The parties to a telephone conversation are not within the ordinary meaning of a gathering or assembly, the court said, because they are not in the physical presence of each other.
The court also noted that the legislature dismissed the opportunity to expand the term “meeting” to include telephone calls under a 1977 proposed amendment. If telephone calls are to be included in the Open Meetings Act, it is up to the legislature to include them, the court said.
The case stemmed from 25 home calls exchanged among the three commissioners between December 1988 and January 1990 and paid for with county funds.
Justice Fred Six said he only agreed that the telephone calls in this case did not violate the Open Meetings Act because there was no evidence of prearrangement. He would include prearranged conference calls in the Open Meetings Act provisions and would not limit the word “gathering’ to face-to-face relationships.
“Decision-making should not occur in secret and undetected, protected by the contemporary camouflage of the speakerphone,” Justice Six said.
In response to the high court decision, Rep. Nancy Brown, R-Shawnee, introduced legislation in late January to make the Open Meetings Act include telephone calls.
(Kansas v. Board of County Commissioners of Seward County; Plaintiff’s Counsel: Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General, Topeka; House Bill 2722)