Officials asked to attend open meetings training

5/7/2013

By AMY BICKEL

Special to the Telegram

(MCT) — The Kiowa County Attorney is asking the Mullinville mayor, city clerk and council, as well as the council's city attorney, to go to school.

County Attorney Scott James said he sent Mayor Andy Kimble, City Clerk Susan Clayton, four council members and City Attorney Janice Jorns a letter requesting them to go to school to learn more about the Kansas Open Meetings Act after an investigation by him revealed the board violated the law.

James said the council unlawfully fired newly elected council member Rob Roberts from his job as the city's full-time public works position last month because they did so in closed session.

"There was a violation," James said of Roberts' firing. "I would describe it as a technical violation ... there were heated tempers in the room and protocol flew out the window for a second, people left and didn't remember."

The training must be put on by either the League of Kansas Municipalities, the Kansas Association of Counties, the Kansas Attorney General or another institution mutually agreed upon by all parties. The class must be completed by Dec. 31.

Roberts, 68, had been working for Mullinville for about six months. On April 2, he was one of five elected to the Mullinville City Council, beating out incumbent Jary Boehme for the fifth and final seat, 27 to 21.

However, according to the Kansas League of Municipalities, Kansas prohibits city council members from holding jobs with the city in which they are serving.

On Feb. 13, after Roberts filed to be on the ballot, he received a letter from Jorns, who first told him of the potential conflict. She noted being a full-time city employee didn't prohibit him from running, but added she thought he needed to resign if he wanted to take the seat if elected.

He received another letter from Jorns on April 4 — two days after the election. That letter didn't address Roberts' job performance and instead Jorns reiterated her concerns about the conflict of being a city employee and serving as council member. She told him there would be a special council meeting April 8 so the city council could discuss "personnel matters" and that he would be sworn in at the regular April 15 meeting.

Roberts said in April that he thought the special meeting had to do with him complying with law after being elected to the post — not his job performance. Roberts said he wanted the chance to resign from the post, but never got the opportunity.

Roberts filed a complaint in Kiowa County District Court on April 16, a day after he was sworn onto the council, saying the council took binding action and fired him in executive session during the April 8 special meeting.

According to Roberts, the council went into executive session with Jorns. Eventually, they called Roberts into the private meeting to tell him of his termination. Later, the council reconvened back into public session and adjourned the meeting.

Minutes of the meeting confirm the council in its public meeting took no action. In a letter to Roberts from Mayor Kimble dated April 8, Roberts was fired for "failure to adequately perform the duties for the City of Mullinville" as he was assigned.

According to the Kansas Attorney General's Office, the Kansas Open Meetings Act allows a board to come to a consensus during executive session, but no binding action may be taken. Such action must occur in an open meeting.

A breach in the act can result in a $500 fine for each violation, and it could lead to a recall of council members.

However, James said, he pored over the council's minutes since October and didn't find any other violations or a pattern of misconduct.

Because of this, in lieu of fines, he is requesting the mayor, council and the city attorney attend a Kansas Open Meetings Act school in the next year. Also in the letter he sent, James suggested the council start documenting the reason they go into executive session, something they hadn't been doing. Simply stating "legal matters" does not adequately convey the subject," he said.

He sent a letter to members Wednesday and is waiting to see if the council accepts the offer.

He said he wasn't going to require Roberts to attend, but said he thought the whole council should go.

"I put in the letter that it's kind of unusual because he is the complainant and he is also on the council," James said.

James said in the letter that the council has until May 31 to sign and return the agreement.

Roberts said he was still awaiting James' letter, adding if the council accepts James' conditions, he might attend the school with them.

"It wouldn't hurt a thing to learn a little more about it," he said of the open meetings law.

Roberts expected action on the issue to take place in open session Monday night.

Also on the agenda is an executive session regarding non-elected personnel.

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