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Novak says county held illegal secret session

Staff writer

An allegedly improper executive session during a June 10 county commission meeting sparked commissioner Dianne Novak to object Monday to the minutes of that meeting.

Novak said the executive session, called to discuss personnel performance of non-elected personnel, was actually to discuss her.

Commissioners Kent Becker and Randy Dallke disagree that the discussion was about Novak, but say it was about whether planning and zoning director Sharon Omstead had the support of commissioners.

Novak said county clerk Tina Spencer told her Monday that the executive session was to discuss whether Omstead was doing her job correctly.

Omstead declined to discuss details of the executive session.

“I really don’t think I should make any response before I talk with legal counsel,” Omstead said. “But Tina’s response was spot on.”

An attorney for the Kansas Press Association had several issues with the sequence of events culminating in the June 10 executive session He called the commission’s behavior “dysfunctional and a very great disturbance to the electorate.”

Max Kautsch said a discussion of a commissioner’s behavior is “not a good reason to go into executive session.”

Kansas law allows six reasons to hold an executive session, but the reason must be based in reality, Kautsch said.

“If you’re calling an executive session to discuss elected personnel, then you’ve violated Kansas open meetings law,” Kautsch said.

Novak said that during the June 10 meeting, she was “completely blindsided” when Omstead showed clips of earlier commission meetings, when Novak questioned legal bills sent by attorney Pat Hughes for consultant work related to a conditional use permit filed by Expedition Wind.

“She had her laptop with her and was replaying several of the meetings prior,” Novak said.

The segments Omstead played had a common thread.

“All of them were on the same thing — that I brought out publicly that the legal bill for Pat Hughes, for $9,000 in one month, was too much,” Novak said.

Novak contends she was being taken to task for what she’d said about Hughes’ bill.

“Nobody opened their mouth, just Sharon,” Novak said. “She thought it was extremely inappropriate for me to have brought that out in public.”

Novak said she’d earlier submitted a request under the Kansas Open Records Act to see what Omstead and Hughes had said about the wind farm.

Omstead provided some information but said portions of what Novak requested were protected from open records act requests.

Kautsch called Novak’s submission of an open records act request “preposterous.”

“Why did she have to submit a KORA request?” he said. “That to me just smacks of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. It’s a real sign of dysfunction when elected members of the commission feel they have to submit open records requests. Absolutely, those work records should be open to the commission.”

Novak should have simply gone to the department and the records should have been made available to her, Kautsch said.

Novak said she’d earlier asked county counselor Brad Jantz whether she was entitled to see the records of Hughes’ work with Omstead, and Jantz told her that as a member of the public she might not be entitled to see the records.

“At the June 3 meeting we discussed those records and discussed the so-called ‘protected records,’ and the commission as a whole agreed we should see those records,” Novak said.

The commission later reviewed the records together, she said.

“Because of my request, she took that as a personal attack and she felt I had no confidence in her ability to do her job,” Novak said. “I told her over and over that as a commissioner I had the right to see the records. Because I requested them she felt I made her feel I had no confidence in her job.”

Novak said she asked Jantz during the June 10 executive session whether the discussion was appropriate and he answered that in the context, it might be.

Dallke disagrees the executive session was about Novak.

“In my opinion it was not about her,” Dallke said. “I can tell you to the best of my heart when an employee is criticized by their superiors, I think they should bring this to her superiors. I will tell you I think Sharon did her best to bring this to commission so she can move ahead.”

Dallke said that he’d have expected Jantz to tell commissioners if they were doing something illegal during the June 10 meeting.

“The intent of the executive was to discuss Sharon Omstead,” Becker said. “She needs to have the commission behind her. It’s not been an easy job.

“Sharon stated that Dianne has made a lot of KORA requests and there were some that we could not give out to citizens. Dianne was taking issue with not being able to get the documents she wanted.”

Kautsch said: “What it smacks of to me is, if there is a wind farm there’s going to be a payoff.”

Kautsch said it appeared to him there was a great deal of distrust between people in the county government.

“That’s not serving the people well,” he said. “It seems cut and dried to me. You’ve got warring factions in your government body.”

Kautsch said officials in the county government “are having a hard time separating their private interests from their job. They should all try to do their job.”

The Marion County Record filed an open records request for recordings or minutes of the June 10 executive session discussion.

Spencer said there are no recordings or notes of the discussion.

The Marion County Record contacted the Kansas attorney general’s office asking for “a strong letter of admonition to all appointed and elected officials involved along with specific advice that ‘discussion of personnel matters of non-elected officials’ does not extend to what we believe happened in this situation.”

Last modified June 19, 2019

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