Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara has filed an open meetings act complaint against the board, saying members discussed employee pay behind closed doors in a session that should have been public.
The Johnson County Board of Commissioners must now respond to the allegation that it violated the law in June by meeting in closed session to discuss general market adjustments to county salaries. Under the Kansas Open Meetings Act, a governing body may only discuss individual employees in closed session, but not general concerns affecting all employees.
O’Hara, a conservative who unsuccessfully ran for chair last year, is often at odds with the majority of the board. But she wasn’t the only one raising objections about the closed session.
Two other commissioners voiced concerns during the board’s meeting on June 29, voting in the minority against having a discussion behind closed doors.
That meeting’s agenda included commissioners voting on bumping employee pay by 6% on average, aiming to stay competitive in the difficult labor market. And the commission also voted on the county manager’s contract.
Before those discussions, the board called for a closed session to discuss non-elected personnel, a general topic permitted under the open meetings act.
Commissioner Becky Fast voted against the closed session, arguing that it is not “best practice” before considering an agenda item.
“I’ve gone through many credential public manager trainings, so I will be voting no,” she said.
Chairman Mike Kelly responded, “I appreciate that. It’s perfectly acceptable under our rules and the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but appreciate your opinion.”
“It’s not opinion, it’s best practices,” Fast replied.
O’Hara also voted against going into closed session, saying, “I’m concerned that we are discussing things that should be discussed in open session.”
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft also voted against it.
Back in public view, commissioners continued with the agenda and discussed the salary proposal at length, eventually voting to approve it. Members also amended the agenda to vote on bumping the county manager’s pay.
O’Hara filed an open meetings act complaint with the Kansas attorney general’s office, claiming that commissioners discussed the salary issue behind closed doors. She said the private conversation was essentially the same as what commissioners had discussed in public during a previous meeting, including salaries for the county manager, chief legal counsel and county auditor.
She told The Star on Wednesday that she filed the complaint for “transparency and making sure we do adhere to all the state statutes.”
Fast is still concerned about the process.
“Was it legal? I’m not a lawyer,” Fast said. “But did it meet the spirit and intent of the law? Was it best practice? That to me, those are two different questions. Johnson County residents, they want the best practices, not just us barely meeting the intent and spirit of the law.”
In O’Hara’s complaint, she also questioned the county manager being present in closed session, saying it could be a conflict of interest, but the attorney general’s office dismissed that, saying it is not unusual for administrative personnel to attend. The AG’s office dismissed other allegations from O’Hara as well, including that legal counsel were not present during the session and that the board amended the agenda to separately vote on the county manager’s salary. The office said they were not violations of the open meetings act.
But the AG’s office has now requested more information on the one remaining allegation, that commissioners improperly discussed the raises.
“We are fully cooperating with the Attorney General’s Office, and I trust the veracity of this investigation,” Kelly said in a statement. “I appreciate that our team is handling these allegations directly and remain confident in this process.”
Kelly said in a statement Wednesday that, “the majority of these commissioners’ allegations were correctly found to be unwarranted. The reason the lone allegation is being investigated is because it considers what was discussed in an executive session, and not readily available.”
He said he is “thankful” that the investigation will allow everyone present to state what happened during the session, “and that accurate information will be gathered and considered.”
In a news release, officials said the county legal department is compiling information for the AG’s office. Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue during their agenda review session on Thursday, with a vote on the county’s response scheduled for Aug. 31.
When a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act is found, a typical resolution would be a settlement agreement, such as a consent order seeking compliance with the law and assuring no future violations, according to the AG’s office. But the resolution depends on how severe the violation is.
The attorney general can fine individual members of a public body up to $500 for each violation, as well as require training and future compliance with the law.
This story was initially printed August 23, 2023, 1:01 PM.
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Sarah Ritter is a watchdog reporter for The Kansas Metropolis Star, protecting schooling and authorities within the Johnson County suburbs.