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Unusual secrecy surrounds meeting

Staff writer

With unusual secrecy, Marion City Council met behind close doors Monday, cloistered with their city attorney — who rarely attends meetings — but without the city administrator, who almost always is invited to closed-door sessions.

The city even took the additional step of asking a Record reporter, who sat down just outside the room, to move behind a second set of closed doors so she couldn’t overhear anything.

Topic of discussion, requested by city council member Zach Collett, was not disclosed despite a protest from the Record that state law requires a topic to be clearly stated.

The only rationale given was that the session was to discuss “personnel matters of non-elected officials.”

Legally, according to attorney general opinions, that’s a justification, not a description of the topic, and both a justification and a description are required by law.

On Tuesday, the Record shared with city administrator Mark Skiles and attorney Brian Bina a copy of a 2018 attorney general opinion that “the statement describing the subject(s) to be discussed must be more than a general or vague summary,” but Bina insisted he and the council were within their rights to meet in secret.

The attorney general’s opinion goes on to state:

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.

The KOMA (Kansas Open Meetings Act) is interpreted liberally, with exceptions narrowly construed, to carry out the public purpose of the law.”

When the meeting room’s doors were reopened at 5:20 p.m., Mayor David Mayfield reported that the council “took no action,” which is a common refrain among public officials since it is illegal to take a binding action during a closed session.

Council member Ruth Herbel declined to tell the Record what they met about. Collett didn’t return a phone call. Efforts to reach Chris Costello and David Mayfield were unsuccessful. Jerry Kline didn’t attend the meeting.

Before the meeting, Skiles met in small groups with council members to discuss amendments to the city budget, changes to which were approved Monday.

Those meetings also raised concerns about so-called “serial” meetings.

A reporter asked during a public hearing whether the council had met with Skiles individually or in groups, explaining she was asking publicly because city officials often didn’t return calls.

Council members looked at each other, but none answered the question.

“I’ll answer that. Yes,” Skiles said. “But they were not serial meetings.”

A “serial” meeting is a tactic public officials sometimes use to try to get around the open meetings law even though attorney general opinions have rejected the practice.

Skiles said his meetings didn’t violate the law because he was providing factual information only, no recommendations, to board members.

“He said we could ask any questions,” Herbel said. “He didn’t really tell us anything.”

Herbel said she and Kline met with Skiles and two city employees — Tim Makovec from public works and Steve Hart, electrical director.

It’s unknown when or whether Skiles met with other members.

Open meetings concerns also were raised about last week’s county commission meeting in which the same “personnel” exemption was cited for twice closing meeting room doors.

Afterward, commissioners voted to adopt a longevity pay scale. Pay scales are specifically forbidden to be discussed under “personnel” exemptions.

Last modified Dec. 14, 2022

 

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