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Board determined to have
violated open meetings act

Catherine Faimon | Publisher

LYNDON—Osage County Attorney Brandon Jones has determined the USD 421 Board of Education violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) by failing to notify the public about a special meeting held in January.

In a letter to the board president and superintendent, dated March 21, Jones said he investigated two complaints about the Jan. 27 special board meeting – a written complaint from The Osage County Herald-Chronicle and a verbal complaint from district patron Johnnie Vosseller.

The Jan. 27 meeting, which lasted five minutes, was held for the purpose of accepting a resignation from Jeff Kohlman, Lyndon Elementary-Middle School principal, who had accepted a position as superintendent of Chase County USD 284.

“In my investigation, I have determined that the USD 421 Board of Education did violate KOMA by holding a special meeting without giving proper notice to those who had requested to be given such notice of any special meetings, specifically, The Osage County Herald-Chronicle,” Jones said in his letter to the board.

KOMA requires that notice of the date, time and place of any regular or special meeting of a public body shall be furnished to any person requesting such notice. The Herald-Chronicle had made a written request for notification in January 2011. KOMA provides that it is the duty of the presiding officer or other person calling the meeting to furnish the notice.

Jones said he decided the appropriate penalty for the violation was a requirement that the board receive training on the provisions of KOMA. Jones presented a settlement agreement to the board, requesting board members to act on it at their next meeting. The agreement outlines that the board will receive training presented by an attorney with the Kansas Association of School Boards within 90 days of the date of the agreement; they engage in no future violations of KOMA; and should they engage in a future violation of KOMA, the agreement will be nullified and the county attorney could prosecute the violation. The agreement also stipulates that individual board members agree they violated KOMA and intend to follow KOMA in the future.

All seven of the USD 421 board members, Bob Knoernschild, Lori Sturdy, Lisa Baker, Glenda Bronson, Lynda Farwell, Dave Brecheisen, and Melissa Herdman were notified of the meeting and attended, as did USD 421 Superintendent Brian Spencer and board clerk Donnalee Mounkes. Knoernschild is the board president.

In February, The Herald-Chronicle contacted Spencer about the meeting and the lack of notice to the newspaper. At that time, Spencer said he believed a waiver signed by all of the board members at the January special meeting relieved the board of statutory notice requirements. Although the board members signed a waiver of notification, the statute relied upon for the waiver applied only to board members, not to citizens.

During discussion with The Herald-Chronicle about the violation, Jones said there is no provision in KOMA to waive notification requirements. Jones also noted that KOMA allows for a civil penalty of $500 per violation. He said he chose not to seek fines, and instead required the board to obtain training. The law also provides that any binding action taken at an illegal meeting can be voided if action is taken by the prosecutor within 21 days of the meeting.

Jones said from his discussions with Spencer, he believed the board would accept the settlement agreement and comply with the training requirement.

“I hope you will consider entering into this agreement with my office in lieu of further legal proceedings,” Jones said in his letter to the school district.

Wayne White, Herald-Chronicle managing editor, said he was pleased with the outcome of the investigation and Jones’ finding that the law had been violated.

“The notification provision in state statutes serves as the heart of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, in that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate,” White said. “Failure to notify the electorate that a public body plans to conduct public business in a meeting nullifies the purpose of the act.”

“It’s important for newspaper staff to understand open government laws, too,” Herald-Chronicle publisher Chris Faimon said. “We are hoping other elected officials in the county will take the opportunity to attend this training and refresh their knowledge of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.”