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Executive session does not prevent commission from answering questions E-mail
Opinion
Friday, 01 December 2017 10:20

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L&T Publisher Earl Watt



For the past two Liberal City Commission meetings, local resident Rita Isaacs posed legitimate questions to the commissioners only to be stonewalled and basically treated as if she doesn’t know how to ask a question.

Mayor Joe Denoyer told Isaacs that the commission cannot discuss “city personnel, litigation and we definitely cannot discuss items that were discussed in executive session.”

He is wrong about that, but for a moment, let’s say he and the other commissioners choose to keep their discussion completely private, which they have a right to do even though they are not obligated or legally required to do so.

Let’s say they don’t want to share anything discussed in executive session. Does that disqualify Isaac’s questions?

No.

Isaacs has asked to know who prepared the new city manager contract that quadrupled the severance package, guaranteed an annual raise, banned any commission from modifying the document without the city manager’s permission and made the contract open-ended, meaning it will never terminate so that a new contract could be negotiated.

Isaacs wanted to know who drew up the contract. Was it legal staff? Did an attorney draw it up. Did a commissioner? Did a member of the staff?

To believe that question is protected by executive session would have to infer that the eight-page contract itself was discussed, written, typed and printed in a 10-minute executive session.

That obviously didn’t happen. The contract was presented that night.

What we do know from an interview with Mayor Joe Denoyer is that the contract originated as a template from the International City Managers Association.

Noting a couple of typing errors in punctuation in the contract, it is highly unlikely that an attorney or an attorney’s staff would not have caught a comma in place of a period. Highly unlikely, but not impossible.

We also know that Mayor Denoyer was expecting a review of the city manager that night and not a new contract according to his interview following the approval of the contract by Denoyer, Harrison, Tony Martinez and Dean Aragon. Only Jack Carlile voted no.

So, Isaac’s question of wanting to know who drew up the contract is not protected by executive session privilege. The contract was clearly drawn up prior to executive session.

Isaacs’ question is reasonable and should be answered. 

Denoyer stated that “staff” prepared the contract.

Isaacs is asking who on the staff drew it up? Her question again is reasonable to know if the city manager can write his own contract, get his own staff to approve it, and get the commission to vote yes.

Again, it is reasonable to ask if the city attorney reviewed the contract. It is also important for the public to know that the city attorney works at the direction of the city manager, not the city commissioners. Her primary responsibility under that structure would be to protect city management as her “client” and not necessarily the commission or by extension the taxpayers. Quite possibly her role could be interpreted to protect staff from the commission and taxpayers.

Is it unreasonable for Isaacs to ask if the contract was reviewed by the city attorney? Of course not, and that, again, is not something protected by executive session. She is not asking the commission to divulge how they arrived at voting for the contract, or what discussions took place in the two 10-minute meetings, but simply to ask if due diligence took place and to let the voters know if the city manager prepared and produced his own contract.

Isaacs also wanted to know who chose now as a time to renew the contract since the old one was not to expire for another year.

Again, this is not protected by executive session since someone had to know why there would be an executive session in the first place. Someone placed the item on the agenda knowing a contract would be discussed. 

Since Mayor Denoyer claimed ignorance, and he represents the commission, it is unlikely that a commissioner requested it to be done that night. If so, that would mean staff requested the massive changes to the city manager’s contract.

According to KSA 75-4317, the Kansas Open Meetings Act, discussing this contract in executive session was optional. The commission “may” discuss these items privately but are not required by law to do so. Nothing in the statute prohibits discussion about the conversation that took place in executive session. While commissioners are not required, they are also not prohibited.

Either way, Isaacs’ questions did not pertain to the session, and she even asked for clarification to know how to properly ask her question. She received no guidance other than to be told the board’s self-imposed policy on keeping the public in the dark on issues they would rather not discuss.

Hiding by the executive session to prevent the public from information they have a right to know should concern every citizen. If the commission won’t provide basic information like this, what else are they not sharing with the people they are supposed to represent?

 

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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association and the Associated Press.

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