Saturday, October 14, 2006

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline: "So, he's not a criminal; he's just sleazy."

By Diane Silver

My 79-year-old mother doesn't mince words. When I happened to mention the controversy about Attorney General Phill Kline's run-in with the Kansas Open Meetings Act, she summed up her feelings quite nicely: "So, he's not a criminal," she said. "He's just sleazy."

Her comments are important. As a Kansas citizen, she is Kline's boss, just like me and like you if you happen to live in the Sunflower State.

However, we can't have any impact on what Kline or other state officials do if they don't conduct the public's business in public. We can't have an impact if we don't know what they're doing, or even know that they're meeting.

That's why Kline's apparent effort to slip past the Kansas Open Meetings Act in February 2005 is so disturbing. In a nutshell... he asked attorneys in his office about the law. He discovered that it would be a violation for him to meet secretly with four members of the six-member, ultra-conservative majority of the state Board of Education.

To avoid breaking the law, he met twice on the same day -- each time with three members of that radical majority. Note that number. It's important because it's just one short of the number needed to trigger a violation of the law.

Each meeting was behind closed doors. Each meeting was kept secret from the four moderate members of the board. And each meeting was kept secret from the public until it was uncovered in news reports.

You can read this post to get all the details.

I suspect that even Kline knows this is a lousy idea. Perhaps that's why he apparently attempted this week to misrepresent the words of Kansas Press Association attorney Mike Merriam.

In a chat at the Lawrence Journal-World, Kline tried to make it appear as if Merriam approved of his actions. In fact, Merriam was fighting against them.

I can't prove that Kline meant to lie about Merriam's position. Perhaps Kline just forgot that Merriam was his major opponent in the fight about the meetings. Perhaps it was just the heat of the moment. Perhaps it was a slip of the fingers on the computer keyboard during the Journal-World chat.

What's truly bizarre is that -- on the surface -- there is no reason for Kline to have met privately with only those members of the board who shared his religious philosophy. He could have just as easily attended a public meeting of the state board. Of course, that would only be true if he and the anti-evolution board members weren't attempting to hide something from the public and the rest of the board.

So, did Phill Kline break the law?

Nope, not a bit.

Should the citizens of Kansas be worried about his actions?

Oh yeah.


Blue Girl, Red State said...

I used to live in Wichita. I have been sick to death of Kline since 1991, and the so-called Summer of Mercy. And not just because of where I worked at that point in time. I worked for an obstetrician who specialized in high-risk pregnancies. We on occaision refered patients to Dr. Tiller. We got picketed along with the abotion clinics.

Those people are at the top and bottom of my $^&t list and comprise a big chunk of the middle. And Kline sang their praises.

He is not fit to serve as dogcatcher, let alone as the states chief law enforcement officer.

November 7th can't get here fast enough.

El Borak said...

BGBS: being sick of Phill since 1991 is a pretty good feat since he wasn't even elected to the Kansas House until the next year. You must have a pretty good nose for up-and-comers.

Diane: I wonder if you're willing to hold the current governor to the same open meetings standard, since she was actually sued by news organizations over the meetings act:

In the words of Mike Merriam, Sebelius, "...had an opportunity to interpret the Open Meetings Act liberally, and they didn't take it," he said.

So is she legal but sleazy as well? Or is here a different standard in play here?

Diane Silver said...

Hey El Borak, Good to hear from you.

Actually, at the time Gov. Sebelius' cost-cutting teams met behind closed doors in 2002, I was upset. I did think and continue to think it was kind of sleazy from a policy point of view, and a politically stupid move to boot.

I remember feeling angered and suprised that Sebelius would do that. I've never met Kline, but I do know Sebelius from way back when she was in the Kansas House, and I was a reporter. I always thought she would do better than that.

For what it's worth, I believe those meetings did violate the spirit of the open meetings act. However, as you know, the meetings were upheld as legal by the Kansas Court of Appeals.

There is one more important point to note, though, and it's a huge one.

You really can't rank the closed-door meetings of the cost-cutting teams in the same category as secret meetings of the state Board of Education.

That's because the cost-cutting teams were advisory only. They had no legal power to do anything. All these teams could do was advise the governor.

The state Board of Education is an official, elected body. Six members of that board -- the number, in fact, that met with Kline behind closed doors -- constitute a majority vote. The board's majority votes, in and of themselves, shape public policy, at least in the area of education.

Any vote or any discussion taken by Sebelius' cost-cutting teams did nothing more than give Sebelius a list of recommendations.

Should the meetings of the cost-cutting teams have been held in public? Yes. Did holding those meetings behind closed doors have the same impact as a closed-door meeting of the Board of Ed? Absolutely not.

Take care. Have a great weekend.

El Borak said...

"You really can't rank the closed-door meetings of the cost-cutting teams in the same category as secret meetings of the state Board of Education."

Oh, absolutely they are the same. Both were legal, both should have been done differently. Both left the impression that there was something to hide, and both were done as they were because - let's be honest - public meetings make it impossible to float hypothetical ideas without being crucified in the papers.

The only way one can say that the board meetings were a 'bigger' violation is if something substantive came from them. I don't think anything did (correct me if I'm wrong), which means they are simply a tempest in a teapot, or another reason to oppose a politician one already opposes for different reasons.

"...each meeting was kept secret from the public until it was uncovered in news reports."

Do you remember how the "news reports" found about about the superduper secret meetings?

Diane Silver said...

Gak, it's Saturday night, and I'm supposed to be doing homework, not posting on this blog! Arg. (No comments please on the fact that I would even consider Sat. night a good time to be doing homework.)

However... and back on task... El Borak, I do believe you have misquoted the article you cited. At least, I think it's the same article. Your url got cut off.

Attorney Mike Merriam was not talking about Sebelius in that quote, but about the Kansas Court of Appeals. You'll note he uses the pronoun "they."

I'm breaking the url in two so that it will show up right on this comment.

This is from:

Here's the full quote from the Journal-World article:
Mike Merriam, a Topeka attorney representing the news organizations, said the appeals court focused on how the transition office was created, not on how it actually operated. He said it operated as a state agency.

"I think they had an opportunity to interpret the Open Meetings Act liberally, and they didn't take it," he said.

El Borak said...

Yup, my mistake. I read "they" as Sebelius' task forces, not the court. Neither should I be posting on Saturday night, especially with Michigan/Penn State on.

Please accept my apologies and take everything I write tonight with a grain of salt.

Diane Silver said...

El Borak,

I'm getting punchy myself, and oh my, I would much rather be watching the game. Are you a football fan? I love the game myself.

I think we must have been posting our last two comments simultaneously because they both popped up at the same time.

I continue to believe that it is of greater concern for an elected board with power to be meeting behind closed doors, then for a purely advisory board -- but you are right, both are a problem. I am a firm believer in open meetings.

Watch your game! Perhaps I can get more of my work done and get to it, too.

Dare I ask who you might be rooting before? I'm originally from Michigan, but graduated from Michigan State.

Enjoy the game!

El Borak said...

I am currently in Colorado visiting the biggest Spartan fan ever, so I guess I'll take Michigan. Personally, I just like a good game.

I'm a bigger fan of our local JucO, where my son plays in the band and where after losing 24 games over 4 seasons, the Fort Scott Greyhounds have won 4 straight and are (in the words of your own paper) "the surprise of the league." They play #1 Butler tonight, and a win would be a miracle.

But I believe in miracles.

Diane Silver said...

Oh, we are so far off topic now...

Hooray Spartans! Too bad they keep getting creamed by everyone. I won't talk about Ohio State today, or the ridiculous Notre Dame game.

Yay Fort Scott! May they keep winning!!

My son played in the band in high school. Very cool. I'm kind of sad that he's given up the trumpet in college.

OK, enough of this burbling!

Blue Girl, Red State said...

When I said Phill Kline stood with the Summer of Mercy crowd, I meant that literally. Healthcare workers joked that summer that the most dangerous place to be anywhere in town was between a microphone and Phill Kline or Randall Terry.

Sorry if I didn't spell that out quite clearly enough the first time.

El Borak said...

"the most dangerous place to be anywhere in town was between a microphone and Phill Kline or Randall Terry."

Then I'm confused as hell. Phill's Deputy for Consumer Protection, Bryan J. Brown, was one of the movers in Summer of Mercy, but Phill did not know him before he was hired in 2003 (I know this for a fact...if you can google you'll know how, but it's up to you to find it...or Diane could simply dig thru her notes). So how could that be if Phill was big in Summer as well?

So far every criticism I've seen of Brown has focused on Summer, but not a single one has said Phill played any part in that.

If Phill was big enough in Summer of Mercy to be noted, when at the time he was simply the Chairman of the Shawnee GOP Central Committee, how come he's never criticized for it today?

In addition, when Phill was elected, he was not elected as a "conservative" but as a fair-haired boy of the governing JoCo moderate faction. It was not until the conclusion of his first term, when he helped Shallenberger's Rebellion, that he split with the Lyle Pishny/Steve Cloud faction.

Just a little history, FWIW

El Borak said...

BTW, Diane: Fort Scott lost, but there's no shame in taking the #1 team in the league to overtime. And I'm adding you to my blogroll...I'm getting tired of typing your overwhelming URL...

Blue Girl, Red State said...

If I have him confused with someone else I appologize. I was pretty busy back then. I had three kids who were 4, 6, and 8 - and a full-time job and a house to run.

I could have sworn that he was a part of the Mark Gietzen and company Mercy crowd. Mark and I tangled on a regular basis. He and my husband and children belonged to the same parish. (My Jewish butt was in a Catholic pew every Sunday, giving thanks for the education my children were getting at St. Margaret-Mary.) I know I'm not mis-remembering anything about him.:)

I will take your word that Phill came to prominence later and merged with someone else in my memory. Again, appologies. Maybe I got sick of him in '94 or so.

El Borak said...

BGBS: "Again, appologies..."

Fair 'nuff. It appears that this thread will eventually be composed of nothing but football anecdotes and apologies all around.

BTW, I wanted to say on your blog that I thought the piece you did on the Rep from Idaho (Helen Chenowith?) and the one you did on the wounded Rep. from MO were both classy. I commend you for stepping outside the normal partisan lines to see the people behind the labels.

'tis a rare quality, unfortunately, but one you are to be saluted for. And you get a link too...

Diane Silver said...

El Borak,

Sorry about the football loss, and thanks for adding me to your blogroll. Apologies for the long, darn url. 'Twas the best I could do at the moment I signed up. Blogger didn't seem to want to give me anything shorter. Have a great Sunday. Time for bed now.

Blue Girl, Red State said...

Diane - try

and get a tiny URL!