Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office has dismissed an open meetings complaint that was filed by the Sunshine Coalition for Open Government over the closing of the state Senate gallery and removal of the news media from the chamber during the last day of the 2019 Legislature, Ron Keefover, Coalition president, said Thursday.
Keefover said Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office rejected the Coalition’s contention that the Senate violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) when the public and the news media were removed from the chambers amid protests over the Senate leadership’s decision to not debate Medicaid expansion. The proceedings were disrupted May 29th by a small group of individuals who drowned out the proceedings with chants and singing. The nine members of the group were escorted from the Senate by the Capitol Police upon direction of Senate President Susan Wagle after the proceedings were interrupted by the outburst.
Keefover said news of the dismissal is not only disheartening, but serves a symbol of the “dark state” nature of Kansas government. “I’ve found that not only do our public bodies seek out exceptions to open government, in many cases they openly defy statutorily presumed open records and open meetings provisions." He said he is referring to a study by a professor at the University of Arizona released in June, which ranked Kansas sixth from the bottom of the 50 states in compliance with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. This is a prime example.
“Closing the Senate chambers and not only ousting the media from the floor but threatening them with denial of their credentials to cover future proceedings is simply unwarranted and unheard of in my experience,” Keefover said. “Covering the protest and disruption of the Senate proceedings is certainly a minimum right under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.”
Keefover said he was notified of the complaint’ dismissal in letter he received by email Wednesday evening from Lisa Mendoza, an assistant attorney general, who is assigned to enforce the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts.
The complaint, besides alleging violations of KOMA, contended that the removal of the news media from the Senate Chambers violated media’s First Amendment rights to a free press guaranteed by the state and federal Constitutions. “However,” Keefover said, “the Attorney General said following an initial review of the complaint that his office lacks jurisdiction to enforce constitutional challenges under the provisions of the KOMA.” Those parts of the Sunshine Coalition’s complaint were dismissed June 28th, but the remaining KOMA issues of whether the Senate conducted any business during the Senate recess and whether the public’s statutory right were violated because of the inability to access the Senate galleries.
Wednesday, Schmidt’s office said after investigating, it could find no evidence that Senate business was conducted during the May 29 recess, and further that the Senate has adopted rules under their authority in the Kansas Constitution that allow that body to depart from the general requirements of KOMA, thus authorizing the closure of the galleries. The letter does caution other governmental entities that they do not have the authority “to carve out a similar path.”