An Aug. 6 Seward County Board of Commissioners agenda item about county grant funds led to a debate over a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act.
County Treasurer Bob Dahms requested “Discuss/Action – Revenue Placement into Grant Funds” be placed on the commissioners’ agenda to officially raise concerns about revenue from interlocal agreements being placed in county grant funds.
According to Board of Commissioners Chairman John Culver, the issue stems from commissioners’ concerns that county attorney Wendy Elston has improperly placed interlocal monies into the County Attorney Grant Fund when a separate interlocal fund should exist to house that money.
Commissioners also discussed similar circumstances in the Emergency Management Grant Fund, E911 Grant Fund, Road Grant Fund and Miscellaneous Grant Fund.
Culver said previous boards have approved the actions.
“We’re a new board this year and say no longer can you do that,” he said.
According to Culver, state auditors have told the county in the past that money brought in from interlocal agreements should be housed in separate funds from money brought in by grants.
Elston said during the meeting the county clerk’s office created the single fund and that she is willing to create separate funds.
When the commissioners reached the item on the agenda, Elston said the agenda item was too vague because it did not list what funds would be discussed. She said discussion was in conflict with the Open Meetings Act.
The Open Meetings Act says “agenda items shall be sufficiently descriptive to give the public reasonable notice of the matters to be considered at the meeting.”
After Elston voiced her concerns, Dahms said she should have brought them up earlier.
“It’s been on the agenda since Friday,” he said. “I have not received one word.”
Elston said she informed Culver as soon as she saw the agenda over the noon hour Monday.
“I can’t help it that [Dahms] did not put it on with specificity,” she said.
She suggested moving the item to the Aug. 13 agenda with more details.
County Clerk Sherry Schweitzer, the person who builds the commissioners’ agenda, said county officials frequently submit items with varying degrees of specificity. She said sometimes they are a paragraph in length, while other times she feels that what is submitted is vague.
“I did not think this was vague enough,” she said.
Elston suggested that Schweitzer send proposed items to the county attorney’s office for approval before finalizing the agenda.
Schweitzer said she has tried to do that in the past.
“Sometimes I have sent them to you, Wendy, or somebody from your staff has put them on there, and I feel that they are vague,” she said.
That’s when Dahms jumped back into the conversation.
“So, you think just because you’re an attorney, you can be vague?” he asked Elston.
“Bob, I’m not going to argue with you,” Elston said. “I’m going to address the chair and say that with my legal background, I can help determine what is vague and what is not.”
She then told Culver that if he could identify what grants and funds were in question, she would not think the item was vague.
Culver responded by asking if the board could just discuss the item without taking any action. Elston said the agenda needed to specify which revenues and funds would be discussed.
“We would just want information as to all grants,” Culver said.
“But what revenue funds? See, you don’t know,” Elston said. “That’s the whole point of the Open Meetings Act is to give people a reasonable amount of notice so that they can be prepared.”
Schweitzer asked why the agenda item needed more specificity.
“Why on some things, Wendy, does it have to be more specific than others?” she asked.
Schweitzer added that within the last couple years, she had voiced concerns with the county attorney’s office about an agenda item regarding “courthouse system updates.”
“I mean, what system? HVAC? Sprinkler? Computer system?” she asked.
“I don’t want to get into arguments here,” Elston said, before adding she would speak with the people in her office who reviewed the agenda items Schweitzer had concerns about.
Commissioner Ken Schmieding said although he did not have any personal complaints, he saw the issue as the commissioners not receiving timely information from the county attorney’s office.
“I guess this is the first that I’m hearing of it,” Elston said.
“Well, you heard it now,” Schmieding said.
Schmieding later brought up a letter Elston had previously forwarded to the board informing it of potential litigation that required the commissioners to go into emergency executive session on July 23. The letter had been dated July 18 but the board did not receive it from Elston until July 22, according to commissioners.
Elston said the commissioners received the letter from her within an hour of her receiving it.
“I can’t help what the other attorney put on there for the date,” she said.
Culver then asked Elston to clarify if Dahms’ agenda item was possibly or was definitely a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Elston said it was a violation, and Culver asked her if she would pursue action against the board for proceeding.
The Open Meetings Act gives authority to the Attorney General and county attorney to enforce the Open Meetings Act.
“I don’t want to be in an adversarial position with the board,” she said. “I’m just giving you what my legal advice is.”
Asked after the meeting if she would pursue any action against the board, Elston provided no comment.
The board proceeded to discuss the agenda item but took no action. The