Daily Archives: Feb. 6, 2007

Kansas: A model for government ethics?

If you think Kansas has its share of ethics controversies — or perhaps more than its share (Lawmakers chatting with state supreme court judges about pending school finance bills, using government address lists to distribute campaign fliers, etc), consider this: There’s a chance Kansas politicians just get caught more often because of its ethics system.

According to a new report by the United States Public Interest Research Group, Kansas is one of 12 states that is doing well. Kansas, and the other states PIRG rated well, has “outside oversight, meaningful conflict of interest rules, protection against arbitrary removal of commissioners, an open complaint process, full investigative authority and full disclosure of complaints filed and actions taken.”

Here’s their assessment: “The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission is a nine member body. The Governor appoints two members; the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and the majority and minority party leaders of the state legislature also appoint one each. There is a five year ‘cooling off’ period before party officials, candidates and lobbyists may serve on the commission. Commissioners are appointed to two year terms.

“The commission may initiate an investigation based on an outside complaint or a complaint filed by commission staff. Anyone may file a complaint, and all hearings of the commission are open to the public. In 2006, the commission reviewed approximately 35 complaints and issued 15 fines.”

That’s better than most states, and “far ahead of Congress in establishing independent ethics enforcement for legislators,” according to the report.

On another Kansas ethics note, Rep. Todd Tiahrt was appointed recently to the congressional ethics commission.

Passive-aggressive procedure

As the city council reviews the legal lingo that makes sure their meetings are as orderly and fair as possible, they continue to dance around the big issues.

Well, maybe “dance around” isn’t fair. The council put it this way: the sticky issues are being put in a “parking lot.” And when they discussed the rules formally for the the second time on Tuesday, they started calling it “a garage.”

In their two or three hours of formal discussions, they’ve mostly covered less controversial revisions, like replacing the out-dated recall provisions that were trumped by state law years ago.

For example, who knew that they were actually working under the rules of a five-member commission? Jim Skelton knew, for one. He’s the one that asked for a revision months ago. But nothing happened until some council members fought the mayor over WSU football and then, in a matter of weeks, things like censure procedures and who can speak for the city came into question.

But those topics are in “the garage.”

Instead of these politically sensitive items, the city council has debated whether members should be able to submit explanations of why they voted how they did into the meeting minutes. Carlos Mayans supported that idea along with Paul Gray. Underneath the surface is the Wal-Mart zoning case at Oliver and Kellogg that, for one, was a difficult issue. Then the motion became so complicated even council members were asking each other if they understood what they were voting on. Mayans wanted to be clear he was voting alongside the District Advisory boards, the planning commission and the planning staff (all of whom favored the development).

In the end, both Gray and Mayans were asking that their votes be explained in the minutes. Gray, for example, said he had penned some comments, but, after the exhausting discussion, he decided to let the issue move on. He wanted to clerk to add them in, but, per rules, they couldn’t be added. Only things said in the meeting can. Sharon Fearey agrees, and she says if you’ve got something to say, you should say it while you’re on the broadcast meeting so everyone can see it. Mayans noted that legislators, state and federal, are allowed to explain themselves in writing after meetings.

After about 15 minutes of disagreement, the issue ended up — you’re starting to see the theme, right? — in the garage.

So, left in park are new censure procedures that would let council members denounce one another publicly (there’s already some vague procedures for that, which haven’t been used in recent memory, according to long-time city workers). The issue has strong ties to the much-publicized spat over reviving WSU football with a sliver of the university’s share of local tax money. In that case, Mayans wanted to present his (and WSU alums) plan to WSU’s president, Donald Beggs. Mayans never said he was speaking for the city, but when some saw his quotes in the newspaper and heard them on TV, they felt like Mayans (wearing a non-government Wichita polo shirt at the time) projected the issue as one backed by the entire council.

Tuesday, council members said they’ll back the censure issue out of the garage in March — maybe.

The council will probably also discuss audio recordings of executive sessions and when, if ever, council members can share details about what was said behind closed doors. Though unspoken, this concern appears to have strong ties to any number of leaks over the years where council members and/or city staff have told reporters the back story on business negotiations and other sensitive issues (like discussing the city managers salary or police and fire contract negotiations) that the city believes are exempt from open meetings under Kansas’ open meeting laws.