The Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) is one of two main laws in Kansas that guarantee the business of government is conducted in the “sunshine.” The open meetings law recognizes “that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate” and declares that the policy of the State of Kansas is one where “meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public”
As we proceed into the late March and April meetings we are crossing into a new and strange environment. On March 17, 2020, Governor Laura Kelly signed Executive Order 20-04 which temporarily prohibits gatherings, or events likely to result in gatherings, of more than 50 people. While there are a number of exceptions to this order, there is not an exception for meetings of governmental or quasi-governmental bodies which would normally be subject to KOMA. Accordingly, there are now questions how to best proceed with business in compliance with Kansas law but also comply with the Governor's executive order and guidance of health officials.
Because of the Kansas Sunshine laws there is simply no way to exclude the public from the meetings so simply holding them privately is not an option. Likewise, governmental and quasi-governmental bodies such as City Commissions and Fire District Boards will still need to at least meet in order to pay the bills, and that meeting has to be done publicly and openly. Given the time of year, business should continue forward as normally as possible because the virus will not be here indefinitely (or so we hope), and for many, approval of projects now will be necessary in order to accomplish the work of your entity going through the summer and fall. Therefore we have identified a couple of options:
First, if the boards are hosting in person meetings, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office highly recommends that such meetings proceed forward under the current social distancing recommendations (6 ft between all people). In addition, and when feasible, the meetings should be held in as large of an open air room as possible as this will provide better dilution of any virus that is present. Papers should be presented in electronic format as often as possible so as to minimize contact and passing of items between the board and patrons (with copies of any necessary documents available for the public to pick up). Any individual who is feeling ill should not attend or otherwise should exit the meeting and there should be hand sanitizer available.
Second, because there is no technical requirement for in person meetings, you may elect to conduct the board meetings by either teleconferencing or by video conferencing (the Kansas AG’s Office indicated this would likely be what is occurring for most boards in the upcoming months). The key to the teleconferencing or videoconferencing is that any individual who requests access to the meeting must be given the same – at least to the open portions of the meeting. Therefore, if you use an application like “go to meeting” or “zoom meeting” then you must provide the access to this to any member of the public who requests. Interestingly, if a member of the public does not request access you do not have to provide this. Obviously it will still be necessary to figure out how to alter the situation for any executive sessions because the public would not be entitled to participate on these parts of meetings.
Stephen D. Lanterman is an attorney licensed to practice in state and federal courts in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Mr. Lanterman regularly works with and counsels Kansas Fire District Boards and other governmental and quasi-governmental bodies. If you have questions about open meetings or compliance with KOMA during the coronavirus emergency, call Steve at 785-357-6311.
The information and materials on this blog are provided for general informational purposes only and are not intended to be legal advice. The law changes frequently and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Being general in nature, the information and materials provided may not apply to any specific factual and/or legal set of circumstances. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. Nothing on this blog is intended to substitute for the advice of an attorney, especially an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.