DID CITY BREAK LAW IN VOTE ON VICE MAYOR?

Friday, April 17, 2009
Section: LOCAL & STATE
Edition: main
Page: 1B

BY BRENT D. WISTROM, The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita Eagle has asked the district attorney and state attorney general to investigate whether the Wichita City Council violated the open meetings law when it elected a vice mayor on Tuesday.

Each council member wrote their choice for vice mayor on a blank piece of paper, city officials said. That makes it impossible to know how each member voted.

State law says all meetings of public bodies “shall be open to the public and no binding action by such bodies shall be by secret ballot.”

The Eagle filed an open meetings complaint with Attorney General Steve Six and Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston on Thursday asking that one of the offices open an investigation.

Should that happen and the council is found to have knowingly violated the law, state law allows each council member to be fined up to $500.

Attempts to reach City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf and Mayor Carl Brewer on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.

It took the council two rounds of voting to choose Jim Skelton as vice mayor, a position that council members say has become more visible in recent years.

On the first vote, City Clerk Karen Sublett handed out pieces of paper, council members voted and Sublett collected the papers. She told the council no one had four votes.

The second vote was also on paper, but Skelton received four votes, enough to give him a majority on the seven-member council.

The Eagle requested the ballots Tuesday but got only a tally of the votes.

In round one, Skelton had three votes, Jeff Longwell had two votes and Lavonta Williams had two.

In the second round, Skelton had four, Longwell had two and Williams had one, according to an e-mail from city spokesman Van Williams.

Williams said he did not know whether there was a record of how each member voted and said that City Council members may not wish to share how they voted.

On Wednesday, Sublett asked The Eagle whether it had received the votes. The Eagle confirmed a tally had been relayed, but asked whether the ballots were blank papers on which council members wrote their pick.

“The ballots are blank and they do not want their names on them according to Gary,” Sublett replied, referring to the city attorney.

In the formal complaint, The Eagle’s lawyer, Lyndon Vix, referred to an attorney general opinion in a similar case.

In that 1975 case between the Olathe Hospital Foundation Inc. and Extendic are Inc., the Kansas Supreme Court said the purpose of the law “is to make public every official’s vote on the public’s business.”

The Wichita City Council has admitted to violating the open meetings act twice since 2003.

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

THE WICHITA EAGLE

DA: SECRET BALLOT BUCKED OPEN MEETINGS LAW

Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Section: LOCAL & STATE
Edition: main
Page: 1B
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita City Council violated the open meetings law when it used secret ballots to select Jim Skelton as vice mayor April 14, the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office said.

But the DA’s Office did not punish council members for the violation because the city admitted the error and published how each member voted three days after the violation.

The maximum penalty for a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act is a $500 fine, which could have been assessed to each council member if it was proven that they knowingly violated the law.

“The City has formally acknowledged its error and the public’s right to know how its elected officials voted has been vindicated through the release of the Council members’ votes,” said a letter from Deputy District Attorney Ann Swegle.

“The Eagle’s reporting of this violation – to this office and to the public – was fully warranted and assisted us in the expeditious resolution of the matter through securing the public release of the votes of individual council members.”

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf apologized for the violation and said he takes the blame for it.

“I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future,” he said.

The city may soon produce training materials for all levels of employees to improve relationships with the public and the media, he said.

Rebenstorf also plans to attend the attorney general’s open meetings and open records workshop in June.

Here’s a rundown of what happened:

When the City Council chose a vice mayor on April 14, no one won on the first vote. Council member Jim Skelton got a majority of votes on the second round.

An Eagle reporter asked for the votes after the meeting, but the city couldn’t show how each member voted because council members wrote their pick for vice mayor on blank sheets of paper.

State law says the public must be able to ascertain how each member voted.

The Eagle’s lawyer, Lyndon Vix, mailed a formal complaint to the DA’s Office and the Kansas attorney general on April 16.

On April 17, the city self-reported the open meetings violations and released how each council member reported voting. That’s the same day The Eagle ran a story that outlined the possible violation and reported that the newspaper had filed formal complaints.

“We’re pleased that the city and the District Attorney’s Office have recognized that this did not meet the criteria of the Open Meetings Act,” Wichita Eagle Editor Sherry Chisenhall said Tuesday. “Since the city acknowle dged its error, we’d expect to move forward with no other incidents.”

Randy Brown, executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, said it’s clear that the council didn’t want people to know how they voted.

“That’s such an obvious violation,” he said. “What were they thinking about?”

The council should have known better given recent violations.

“They’re either not getting very good advice or they’re not taking it,” he said. “It doesn’t bode well for the council’s understanding of open governme nt.”

In a previous story, Mayor Carl Brewer said he was unaware of the violation and didn’t think twice about voting on blank pages because the city has used similar voting techniques to select the vice mayor before.

The Eagle also raised questions about such balloting in 2007 when the council had 22 deadlocked votes while trying to select someone to fill the rest of Brewer’s term in District 1.

The city later released those votes and the DA’s Office said since the deadlocked votes didn’t create “binding action,” it wasn’t a violation.

The City Council has admitted to violating the Open Meetings Act twice before since 2003.

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

KANSAS.COM

Read the district attorney’s response to The Eagle and learn more about the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Links are attached to this story on Kansas.com.

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