Prairie Village, Kansas — an affluent suburb of Kansas City — claims to prize diversity. In fact, the city government so prizes “diversity” it even has an official “diversity committee” on which sit two city council members.
However, it appears that commitment to diversity is only skin deep.
In mid-July, a meeting of that committee apparently became somewhat heated — and according to one attendee — the committee then voted to no longer allow public comment.
Jim Snitz, who attended and spoke at the meeting, said this was the first meeting of the committee that he knows of where there was much in the way of public attendance, and many of the attendees were concerned that the diversity committee was assuming a problem that they cannot prove exists — a lack of diversity in the community.
“So they assume there’s a problem here in Prairie Village … but you know, no one ever asks them to state the problem,” Snitz said. ”Okay, we need more diversity.’ What is the problem with not having more diversity? “Because, you know, Prairie Village is a fairly pricey place to live, to, to buy into, for everybody, not just minorities, not just people of color.”
Snitz, who is Jewish, noted that when his family moved to the area in the 1940s, the “J.C. Nichols covenants” prevented his parents from buying a home in Prairie Village.
“We want an open discussion of the future of Prairie Village that’s not one-sided. They’re trying to provide a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. You know, the data says Prairie Village is 92 to 94% white, … that is evidently their evidence that there’s a diversity problem in Prairie Village. I would only say that the entry point to Prairie Village is a financial situation. You have to qualify to be able to rent or buy a property in Prairie Village. But there is no discrimination on who can do that.
Snitz admits as the meeting went on, things became contentious but added Committee Chairwoman Inga Selders, who is also a city council member, “kind of lost a little bit of control of the meeting.”
After which, votes were taken to limit time for public comment and ultimately exclude public comment entirely.
KOMA does not require public comment
Neither governing bodies nor official committees are required to allow time for public comment under either the Kansas Open Meetings Act or the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Meetings are considered a “limited public forum,” and governing bodies are allowed to put time limits on public comment — or disallow it entirely.
Minutes must be kept, but there is no requirement in the law to record those minutes nor to broadcast the meetings.
Indeed, Prairie Village Public Information Officer Ashley Freburg said only certain meetings are so recorded.
“The City of Prairie Village broadcasts and records only those meetings where binding action is taken,” she said in an email. “This includes only the City Council and Planning Commission/Board of Zoning Appeals. We were using Zoom to broadcast and record virtual meetings during the height of the pandemic, but all meetings have returned to an in-person format. Similarly, not all committees use recorded minutes. Minutes are not official until they are approved by the committee.”
No policy change, city says
Freburg said the vote to disallow public comments going forward was not a policy change, but public comment is entirely at the discretion of the committee chair.
“There is time set aside for “public comment” on the agenda for City Council Meetings only,” she said. “There is not a public comment section on the agenda for any of the advisory boards or committees; however, the chair of the committee(s) can allow public comment. This is not a policy change.”
However, a follow-up question asking why a vote was necessary if no policy change occurred has not been answered.
The Sentinel also asked the city to share what it believes to be evidence that a diversity problem exists and if diverse opinions — particularly from current residents — should not be included as well.
Freburg would not directly answer either of those questions, merely stating the “Diversity Committee was initially established as the Diversity Task Force in 2020. It became an official committee in 2021. The committee has an outlined list of priorities available online at https://www.pvkansas.com/governing-body/diversity-task-force,” and then reiterating that only at city council and planning commission meetings is time set aside for “public comment,” and adding: “The City does welcome differing views and constructive dialogue. We value opinions and the pulse of the community unless they become disruptive to the business at hand.”
But the Diversity Committee’s action indicates that it, at least, does not welcome differing views. And that directly contradicts one of the top diversity priorities – “Engage in civil discourse and listen to the needs of the community.”
Whether the residents speaking at the July 12 meeting were disruptive or not cannot entirely be known, however, as the meetings are not recorded nor broadcast.
State Sen. Richard Hilderbrand (R-Baxter Springs) said that is something that perhaps should be addressed.
“I think transparency in government needs a lot of improvement,” he said. “I would be supportive of requiring all public meetings to be live streamed.”
Hilderbrand also said that public comment should be allowed at such meetings.
“I am not sure if KOMA would be the correct place,” he said. “But I do believe that any government entity that is holding hearings or committee meetings should allow time for citizens to testify or comment.”