The City Commission of Arkansas City met Jan. 19 for a study session dedicated to an orientation and refresher regarding the city’s government structure and Kansas sunshine laws.
The session was one of several that will take place outside of regular City Commission meetings during the next few weeks.
Each of the five city commissioners received a copy of the revised and updated Governing Body Handbook.
The commission will meet again at noon Jan. 26 in the city manager’s office to go over the next sections of the handbook.
“We’re just going to go through the book, page by page,” said City Manager Nick Hernandez.
The City of Arkansas City operates with a commission-city manager form of government and has done so since the public voted to adopt this form of government in 1930.
This form of government combines the strong political leadership of elected officials, in the form of a commission, with the education and leadership experience of a city manager.
Within this form of government, the City Commission serve as the community’s decision-makers.
The commission approves the city’s budget and determines the tax rate, among other duties.
The city manager serves the community by overseeing day-to-day management of the city, such as hiring and firing employees, budgeting, and serving as the City Commission’s chief advisor.
Kansas Open Meetings Act
City Commission meetings all are open to the public, according to state law, and those who have requested notification of meetings must be given notice of any meeting of the governing body.
Part of the laws that the city abides by regarding open meetings state that recording devices may not be prohibited from use during an open meeting.
“One of my biggest fears is that we will inadvertently violate (this act),” said City Attorney Tamara Niles.
There are many ways that can happen, including “if three commissioners talk about city business at a different meeting, not a City Commission meeting,” Niles warned.
Emails are another way the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) can be violated.
If a mass email was sent and someone hit “Reply All,” that email chain then would be considered an “interactive” meeting.
Another way KOMA can be violated is by having “serial meetings.”
“If you and another commissioner were to talk to the other commissioners separately about a certain topic, that’s considered a meeting violation, too,” Hernandez explained.
“If three commissioners were to message each other on Facebook, that (also) would be a violation,” Niles added.
If someone suspects a law has been broken, they have the right to turn it in to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.
“Usually they order training,” Niles said of the attorney general’s rulings to those who are found to have violated KOMA.
“We want to make sure that we know what the laws are and we don’t (violate them),” she said.
“We don’t have anything to hide — that’s why we invite the press. We want the public and the press to know what we’re doing.”
Executive, or closed, sessions also were a topic covered during last Friday’s study session.
Some of the items that can be the subjects of executive sessions include negotiations, matters of non-elected personnel and items that fall under attorney-client privilege.
“We rarely use executive session,” Hernandez said. “In the last year, I think we used it five times.”
Some details of entering such a session have changed since the last legislative session, including how it must be initiated.
When making a motion for executive session, the new law limits the topic to one per executive session.
Commissioners also must specify when they will return to open session, instead of stating a period of time during which they will be in executive session.
“We try to avoid the appearance of a decision being made beforehand,” Hernandez said.
Kansas Open Records Act
The study session also reviewed the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) as it relates to commissioners.
“If you’re not familiar with the Open Records Act, anything we can produce can be requested,” said Public Information Officer Andrew Lawson.
A recent change in the law now includes private emails, as well, as long as they are pertinent to city business.
“We have created (new official city email addresses) for you,” Lawson informed the commissioners.
Facebook also is subject to KORA. “I don’t respond to messages on my private Facebook page anymore,” Hernandez said.
“Whatever you put in an email, it could be (requested),” Niles cautioned.
Some information can be redacted of withheld, such as most human resources information or criminal investigation records, but these exceptions are limited and specific.
“One more thing: Don’t text each other during meetings,” Niles added.
Private text messages also now fall under the definition of open records that can be requested by the public.
Citizens can request public records from the city by contacting Lawson, although some may be subject to fees.
These vary depending on the time it takes to retrieve the documents and whether they are requested digitally or in print.