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Gov. Brownback should set an example for other public officials

POSTED: February 10, 2012 7:00 a.m.

At the risk of crossing the line between politics and religion, we often think the governor of a state and the pastor of a church have much in common. They are both imperfect human beings, yet we expect them somehow to be a little better than those of us who look to them for guidance and inspiration.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has failed miserably when measured by such a standard; specifically by actions that call into question his dedication to the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Some background here: More than once, the governor has invited Republican members of legislative committees to Cedar Crest for dinners and conversation in groups large enough to constitute majorities of quorums, a phrase specifically used in the act to avoid the kind of back room politics that leaves the public in the dark about the development of government policies.
Brownback’s office has said the meetings were social gatherings and that legislators were admonished not to discuss their official business. Unfortunately for the governor, several lawmakers have said publicly that Brownback actively advocated for issues under the authority of the legislators in question. That hardly sounds as if a purely social time was had by all. But giving the governor a pass — that discussions didn’t go beyond pleasantries — perception is everything in politics and even if Brownback didn’t break the Open Meetings Act, he certainly violated its spirit.
The Kansas Open Meetings and Open Records Acts are funny things. Honest, dedicated elected officials from all levels of government — public servants who believe in the law and normally follow it to the letter — are often clueless when it comes to conducting the public’s business in the open. Most times, violations of the law are the product of ignorance. Occasionally, they are something else.
One problem is that complaints must go through local county attorneys, who often represent the officials they’re being asked to investigate. Another problem is that the state’s attorney generals, be they Democrat or Republican, usually tread softly when a complaint moves past the county level and lands in Topeka. Open government is the one law politicians can challenge, knowing chances are good they will receive little more than a slap on the hand if they’re found in violation.
In fact, the Kansas Open Meetings and Open Records Acts are not merely suggestions. They are the law of Kansas and no one should know that better than Gov. Brownback and the legislators who joined him at Cedar Crest.
The Topeka Capital-Journal has filed an open records request for information related to the dinners and the local district attorney has opened an investigation into possible violations. Ironically enough, under the law, it would be participating lawmakers and not Brownback, the organizer of the dinners, who face potential civil fines.
Still, Brownback could do public officials everywhere a favor and use the debate over the dinners to underscore the importance of the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. During his campaign, Brownback promised his reform of state government would be accountable and transparent. He should be held to his promise.

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