Government accountability and transparency are issues that should be important to every voter, citizen, taxpayer, and member of the general public. Because of the nature of our work, however, these issues are taken especially seriously by those of us in the news business.
Pittsburg’s mayor made a Facebook video last week complaining about our coverage of the Feb. 25 city commission meeting, and a former commissioner spoke at this week’s commission meeting saying she was concerned about a vote taken at the meeting being “simply swept under the rug and forgotten.”
While we had previously reported in brief on the issue that was voted on — which we would not characterize as a particularly simple one — and have since done so at greater length, it was never our intention to sweep anything under the rug. We feel, in fact, that more needs to be said about it.
At the Feb. 25 meeting, 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 was not specific enough to comply with the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).
After further discussion — and apparent confusion from most, if not all, parties involved in that discussion — the commission voted on the motion anyway. The vote was 2-2, with Commissioners Brooks and Chuck Munsell voting in favor and Mayor Dawn McNay and Commissioner Larry Fields voting against it.
“I don’t know — since I’m not aware of what the issue is, I don’t know how to help you frame the motion,” Menghini said in explaining that the motion was not specific enough to meet KOMA requirements.
“So I guess, since it’s a non-appropriate motion, does it just go away or do we vote it down or what do we do?” McNay asked Menghini, who responded that “probably to just keep the record clear you should probably vote to deny the motion.”
In our “five things to know” article about the meeting, though the Morning Sun did report that the motion failed to pass, we did not report that two commissioners voted for it despite Menghini’s advice. There was other potentially relevant information that might put that decision in clearer context, however, that we might have also included if we had prioritized immediately writing a more in-depth article about the vote.
Brooks’s Feb. 25 motion conformed to the standards that up until recently — and even following the initial controversy at the Pittsburg commission’s Feb. 25 meeting — have been enforced upon other governing bodies in the area, including the Crawford County Commission and the Frontenac City Council.
Though the Morning Sun does have access to legal counsel when necessary, unlike these various local governments we do not have a lawyer — taxpayer funded or otherwise — looking over our shoulder at all times when we are conducting business. So it came as a surprise to us as much as to anyone else when Menghini declared Brooks’s motion invalid. We always assumed that lawyers for our local governments knew enough about the law to follow it, and had accordingly been doing so.
Mayor McNay in her Facebook video asserted that this newspaper “did not feel” the Feb. 25 vote “was something that they needed to report on.” In fact, given that Menghini said at the time that he could “work with Commissioner Brooks to put it together for the next agenda if that would be agreeable,” to which Brooks replied “sure,” we assumed the issue would undoubtedly be brought up again, and that when it was, that might be a more opportune time to cover it in greater depth.
Other things happened at the Feb. 25 meeting, of course, that didn’t make it into our “five things” article. We did not initially feel it necessary to report, for example, that McNay on Feb. 25 twice incorrectly referred to “non-agenda personnel” when she apparently meant non-elected personnel — assuming she even knew what she was talking about, which may be an overly generous assumption, considering Menghini had to correct her at this week’s meeting when she asserted that the only non-elected personnel the commission could discuss would be the city manager.
Our “five things to know” articles about local government meetings are meant to give readers a chance to find out in a minute or two about some of the major developments from the meeting. Sometimes the meetings themselves go on for hours. Other times they are so uneventful that it’s a challenge to find five things that happened that are of even the least amount of interest to the general public to be worth including.
In response to questions from the Morning Sun, Kansas Press Association Attorney Max Kautsch recently noted that "the article about which the mayor commented was written in a manner consistent with how the paper has reported commission meetings in the past, as ‘quick hits’, and was clearly not intended to describe the entirety of the meeting. But the mayor failed to note the nature of the article when she made her comments, calling into question her fairness."
Based on our “five things” article about the Feb. 25 meeting, a reader who wanted to know more about what happened could easily look up the video of it online. In terms of transparency — that is, the much more important kind of transparency to the public and to the commission’s constituents, rather than the transparency “to us [on the commission] and … to the city manager” that McNay has recently emphasized — one of the most commendable things Pittsburg’s city government does is to record and archive videos of its commission meetings.
As an aside, while to its credit the Crawford County Commission similarly records and archives meeting videos, the Frontenac City Council does not. The council should consider doing so, given the recent finding by the Kansas Attorney General’s office that Frontenac violated the Kansas Open Records Act last year, and the suspicion repeatedly voiced by Linda Grilz, the city’s former mayor, that the council last year also violated the KOMA — in a much more serious way, in our view, than what is being alleged regarding Pittsburg commissioners — in firing three top employees.
With modern technology this should not be prohibitively expensive for Frontenac and it would go a long way toward alleviating concerns about the city government’s transparency. Councilman Tom Sighel, who said last year that he was running for office because there was “not enough transparency by the governing body to keep citizens informed of what is going on,” could spearhead an effort to begin recording Frontenac City Council meetings and making the videos publicly available. It is important to note that Sighel was not on the council at the time of the questionable firings last September that have generated considerable media coverage and he has had nothing to do with the more recent controversy in Pittsburg.
Perhaps we should have reported on the actions that led to that controversy earlier.
"If the mayor were a private citizen, her opinion that the paper failed to report the details of the motion would be her prerogative,” KPA Attorney Kautsch recently wrote in response to questions about the KOMA from the Morning Sun. “But what really happened is that the mayor used her political position to criticize the paper because it did not portray her political opponent in the worst light possible, which violates the paper's First Amendment rights."
The mayor should be reminded “that the paper is not her agent,” he added.
As previously noted, we had no intention to sweep anything under the rug. Between the city adopting its land use plan at the same meeting, an Imagine Pittsburg 2030 event later that week, and a visit from Democratic Congressional candidate and Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla early the next, among other events in the days immediately following the Feb. 25 commission meeting, we had plenty of work to do and news to cover, but maybe we could have done a better job.
We feel one of the most important things anyone or any organization can do is to be able to admit when they have made a mistake.
Maybe Commissioner Brooks made a mistake in how she worded her Feb. 25 motion, and in voting for it after being advised not to. Maybe Commissioner Munsell, having served significantly longer on the commission, made a bigger mistake with his vote in favor of the motion. Both commissioners have already admitted, however, that they may need more training on KOMA requirements.
Certainly, it is now clear that the Crawford County Commission and Frontenac City Council have made mistakes in how they have worded motions for executive sessions on numerous occasions. The county commission, at least, has acknowledged those mistakes and agreed to make changes going forward.
The Pittsburg City Commission will “just have to be diligent in holding ourselves accountable to transparency and to following Kansas state statute,” Mayor McNay said in her March 6 Facebook video. She is mistaken. No government agency is capable of simply overseeing itself adequately or responsibly if it attempts to reject the independent role of the press. The Morning Sun will continue to hold the city commission accountable.