Recent developments and public comments at the last two Pittsburg City Commission meetings have led to somewhat extensive discussion of the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) and requirements for closed executive sessions.
Sarah Chenoweth, a former Pittsburg city commissioner, spoke during public input at Tuesday’s meeting, saying she wanted to highlight “something that happened at the last city commission meeting which myself and others find incredibly concerning and which we do not wish to see simply swept under the rug and forgotten.”
Towards the end of the Feb. 25 meeting, Chenoweth noted, Commissioner Cheryl Brooks made a motion to recess into executive session to discuss non-elected personnel matters, but City Attorney Henry Menghini said the motion would lead to an executive session that would violate the KOMA, because while non-elected personnel matters are a valid “justification” for an executive session, such sessions also require a “statement describing the subjects to be discussed,” as clarified by the Kansas Attorney General’s office in 2018.
In a Facebook video she posted March 6, Mayor Dawn McNay described what happened next at the Feb. 25 meeting.
“Commissioner Brooks and Commissioner [Chuck] Munsell voted for the motion that we were cautioned by our attorney did not meet the Kansas open meetings statute,” she said, before going on to criticize that action, as well as the Morning Sun’s reporting in our “five things to know” article about the meeting.
“I find it somewhat disturbing and disheartening that whatever their feelings are for the city manager, that they were willing to violate Kansas open meeting statute and it’s also disheartening that the paper, the media, which is to hold us to accountable government, did not feel that was something that they needed to report on. They did state that the motion was made but they did not state that it was a 2-2 vote and that two commissioners voted for it,” McNay said in her video.
“So we’ll just have to be diligent in holding ourselves accountable to transparency and to following Kansas state statute, and hopefully we might have some future education from our city attorney as to what really constitutes a motion related to non-elected personnel that meets the Kansas open meetings statute.”
In her comments Tuesday, Chenoweth said it was “important that our elected officials demonstrate high ethical standards and have personal integrity. It is even more important that they uphold the laws of our city, our state, and our nation to which they swore an oath. I submit for public input that both commissioners Brooks and Munsell on Feb. 25, 2020, violated that oath and that the people of Pittsburg deserve better.”
Munsell tried to immediately respond to Chenoweth, but McNay said doing so would not be following meeting procedure. The next public input speaker, however, also spoke on the issue.
Nancy Ingle said she is a retired attorney and did not have plans to speak at the meeting, “but Ms. Chenoweth’s continued attacks on two of our commissioners, which you will not let them respond to, I feel the people need to respond,” she said, also bringing up the results of the November election.
“I think we need to make it clear. Ms. Chenoweth did not lose to Cheryl Brooks. She lost to everyone. She came in last,” Ingle said, adding that “it seems like she’s on a vendetta against the only woman that won, and I think that needs to be called out.”
Ingle also said that while other commissioners “have had the benefit of being on the commission for a couple years, Ms. Brooks hasn’t, and it’s my understanding there was no training. (...) I just think that going forward between now and the next election, this commission should make it a priority to put in place a program of training for incoming, onboarding commissioners, so they don’t have to go through this kind of humiliating process in front of the city. I know for one fact, I’m tired of this back and forth bickering on my city commission. It’s not good for the commissioners and it certainly is not good for this city.”
Later in the meeting Munsell also responded to Chenoweth’s comments, noting that he voted the way he did based on guidelines in his governing body handbook from 2015, and that until very recently, the Crawford County Commission has followed the same procedures as Brooks attempted to with her Feb. 25 motion calling for an executive session.
“[Commissioner] Tom Moody’s called one. Commissioner Jeremy Johnson has called them also, no specifics but they did it the same way we’ve always — well, we used to do it,” Munsell said. “Evidently that’s changed. So, you know, and I agree with Cheryl, I should be educated on the procedure, but if I would’ve had the current book, maybe that would’ve been in it, but I don’t know.”
Munsell said he wonders if Chenoweth “has planned to attend the next county commission meeting and school the county commissioners on what they did.”
The Morning Sun already spoke with Crawford County Counselor Jim Emerson about the issue prior to the city commission meeting, and he addressed it at the county commission meeting earlier Tuesday, noting that “our motion is correct except for adding in a line on the subject to be discussed.” Emerson added that he had “talked to the [Attorney General's] office. They’re good with that. We kind of went over with him what’s needed, and they’re fine as long as we start, moving forward.”
In response to comments from Brooks, Pittsburg City Manager Daron Hall said further training on KOMA requirements and executive sessions could “absolutely” be arranged.
“Perhaps the easiest thing would be to have somebody from the League [of Kansas Municipalities] just come down here,” he said. “We’re having another working day, we had one in probably February, maybe it was January, but if that’s maybe the easiest thing, if that’s what you’re requesting, we could schedule a time to get somebody down here.”
Following Hall’s comments, Brooks made a motion “that the city commission recess into executive session to discuss the city manager's contract provisions pursuant to the non-elected personnel matter exception, K.S.A. 75-4319 (b) (1),” for one hour, if approved.
Munsell seconded the motion. McNay, however, had further questions about the motion.
“Alright, well I guess, Cheryl, I mean I guess to give you a little grace as a new commissioner, but I am a little confused, excuse me, because two weeks ago you requested through the city clerk an executive session for goals, the email I got this morning was an executive session for the role of the city manager, which I think Henry clarified for you that that — and now it’s performance? What was it?” she said.
“It is city manager’s contract provisions, and Henry I had discussed this,” Brooks said. “This was the best route to take.”
McNay pointed out that at the Dec. 10 meeting, the commission had an executive session to discuss the 2019 city manager evaluation and 2020 employment terms.
“So we’ve already had the opportunity to have those discussions,” McNay said. “I know in the email that you sent me this morning you also requested that it only be the five commissioners. I’m not comfortable with that at all. I would always want the city attorney there.”
Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan said he agreed with McNay that the topics Brooks wanted to discuss had already been discussed at enough length.
“I don’t see that anything relevant or significant has changed since that time, so I don’t see the reason for it either,” he said. “That’s just my opinion.”
Brooks eventually agreed that the city attorney could be included in the executive session, but also commented on McNay’s objections to her motion.
“You always come back at me about something,” Brooks said.
“I don’t think you know more than me. I have questions about things, so if this is the only way to take care of this, then I should be afforded that,” she said.
Brooks said McNay was incorrect in saying the only city staff member who would fall into the category of non-elected personnel that the city commission could initiate an executive session about would be City Manager Hall.
“Initiated by the commission,” McNay said. “But Daron can bring and ask for an executive session related to personnel that he’s responsible for. The only personnel that we can initiate is the city manager.”
City Attorney Menghini, however, “would probably not agree with that particular assertion,” he said.
“Obviously the city manager is in charge of all the personnel at the city. If he wants to bring an executive session to discuss anyone else in the city employment, he can do so. I don’t think there’s anything legally that would prohibit one of you from asking for that either,” Menghini said.
Following this discussion, the vote on the motion made by Brooks was 3-2 in favor, with McNay and O’Bryan opposed.
“I’m going to be in favor of it simply because we’re coming back to this in two weeks, and if we don’t do it in two weeks, we’re coming back to it in a month, we’re coming back to it in six weeks, because this isn’t going away until we do this,” Commissioner Larry Fields said. “So I think we should do it and get it over with.”
Following the executive session, McNay announced that no decisions had been made or votes taken.