The Johnson County Board of Commissioners broadcast business meetings live, public comment is usually invited, and the meetings are in a space large enough to hold several public observers. However, much of its discussion takes place in work sessions held in a small room without much public access, according to one commissioner.
“They want them all off the record,” Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara said of study sessions.“The chairman chooses not to hold study sessions in the hearing room where they would be broadcast and taped.”
Former county commissioner Mike Brown, an Olathe Republican, said many of the county’s budget work sessions occurred in the basement of the Johnson County Administration Building, a room without broadcasting capabilities.
“The taxpayer should not ever have to wonder what their government is doing,” Brown said. “I’m running for chairman in 2022. When I’m chair, we’re not meeting in the basement. Come January 2023, meetings in the basement are over. Transparency is paramount.”
KOMA requires public notice of meetings
The Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) requires that public bodies hold open meetings and that they provide notice of meetings to anyone who requests it. However, KOMA doesn’t require entities to move to larger rooms or better locations to accommodate the public. The law also doesn’t require that entities allow the public to speak at the meetings.
“These are informal discussions between staff and the commissioners to share information about various topics,” Eilert said. “No recommendations can result from a study session. The public frequently attends these meetings and they are always welcome to do so. Public notices about these meetings are shared in advance on both our website and during commission meetings.”
According to Brown, simply notifying people that a meeting will take place isn’t good enough.
“I don’t care that you get on top of a building and you notify the whole wide world, put banners on the building, fly a blimp. At the end of the day, Johnson County government should not be conducting business in the basement. It looks bad,” he said. “Appearance matters. It matters that it is transparent.”
Broadcasting is possible from the formal meeting room
O’Hara says there really isn’t any good reason for county commissioners to meet in a small room when the hearing room includes broadcast and live-streaming capabilities.
“The public can come, but we make it very difficult,” the Stillwell Republican says. “Those work sessions should be held in the boardroom. The public is being pushed out.”
Johnson County Commission Chair Ed Eilert says all county commission study sessions are open to the public.
Formal Johnson County Board of Commission meetings take place at 9:30 a.m. on Thursdays in the Johnson County Administration Building Hearing Room. They are broadcast and archived on the county website. The public is allowed to comment during these meetings. However, officials typically host work sessions in a smaller room in the administration building. They are not broadcast.