FRONTENAC — If former Frontenac Mayor Linda Grilz’s suspicion that city council members violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act on Monday proves true, that will make two violations of government transparency laws by city officials in the past week. On Thursday, the city flatly refused to comply with an open records request from the Morning Sun within the legally required time limit of three days.
“The city's justification for attempting to put the paper's open records request on hold is simply a pretext for refusing to act as required under applicable law,” Kansas Press Association Legal Adviser Max Kautsch wrote in an email.
On Tuesday — following a 6-to-2 vote Monday to terminate City Administrator Brad Reams, City Attorney Tim Fielder and City Clerk Terri Kutz — the Morning Sun requested: “All electronic and written communications, including but not limited to letters, text messages and emails, sent to or from Frontenac City Council members John Macary, Pat Clinton, LaDonna Pyle, Mike Snow, Marc McCully, David Hogard and Brad Reams, Tim Fielder, Terri Kutz, and Linda Grilz for the period Monday, August 26, 2019 to Tuesday, September 17, 2019.”
The city, in turn, declined to fill the request within the statutorily-defined deadline.
“We have received your records request pursuant to KSA 45-218 dated September 17, 2019,” city staff wrote in a document emailed to the newspaper Thursday. “Currently we are without a City Attorney who would normally review such request. Once the City of Frontenac has an Attorney in place, we will contact you and your request will be processed in a timely manner.”
That excuse does not hold water, according to Kautsch.
“When a public agency gets an open records request, that request ‘shall be acted upon’ within three business days,” Kautsch said. “Here, the city is refusing to act on the grounds that it does not currently employ a city attorney. But the law mandates a procedure for responding to open records requests. That procedure does not allow for the city to condition its response to an open records request on the presence or absence of any particular individual; if that were the case, public agencies statewide could avoid their responsibilities in any instance where an attorney (or anyone else, such as a department head) is unavailable. Hopefully the city will reconsider the paper's request promptly.”
Monday’s vote to terminate the three employees — including the city attorney — was not scheduled as part of the meeting’s agenda. While matters of non-elected personnel are generally discussed in an executive session closed to the public, Monday’s vote was taken without any prior discussion of reasons for the decision at an official city council meeting at all, and with the council member who seconded the motion for the firing, John Macary, doing so while participating in the meeting via speakerphone on the cell phone of Councilmember Pat Clinton, who made the motion. Considering these highly unusual circumstances, Linda Grilz — who was Frontenac mayor until apparently resigning Monday — said she thinks city council members violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) by planning out their actions ahead of time.
“I overwhelmingly believe that it was discussed and I do believe that there was a KOMA violation,” Grilz said Tuesday.
Following the City of Frontenac’s refusal to comply with the Morning Sun’s records request — which was made in a document signed “Frontenac City Staff” but emailed to the newspaper by Jayme Mjelde, who was reinstated as a city employee with back pay and promoted to interim city clerk Monday after recently being terminated — Morning Sun Senior Group Publisher Joe Leong issued a statement Friday.
"We are deeply concerned about the lack of transparency at the City of Frontenac," Leong said. "We made a very reasonable request for documents, given the precipitous actions at Monday night's council meeting, and this action by Frontenac city officials raises many questions. For the public to be able to trust their government, it must be open and above-board. This action damages the city's credibility and we ask that they comply with our legal and reasonable request immediately.”