Open records, closed meetings – What’s all the fuss?

In his foreword to the “Kentucky Open Meetings and Open Records Laws” handbook that sits on the desks of most reporters around the state, former Legislative Research Commission Director Vic Hellard Jr. explains that the state passed an Open Meetings law 34 years ago “to provide the people with greater access to government.”

The law gives the average citizen and the press the opportunity to see how decisions are made by the governments that represent them, along with granting those public bodies protections when deciding certain potentially sensitive issues such as personnel matters and property purchases.

Those two competing rights were at the root of a complaint filed by the Messenger-Inquirer last week over a decision by the city of Owensboro and Daviess Fiscal Court.

Along with the news Friday that the city of Owensboro and Daviess Fiscal Court submitted an offer to buy the closed Executive Inn Rivermont came the revelation that the two government bodies likely broke the open meetings law in arriving at that decision.

The Messenger-Inquirer filed a complaint with the Mayor Tom Watson and Judge-Executive Reid Haire over the decision by the city and county to make an offer on the hotel – not because of the content of the decision, but rather how they came to it.

The complaint was filed Friday – the same day that elected officials met behind closed doors to talk about their strategy in pursuing the property – but didn’t take issue with the meeting that morning, which it appears elected officials were well within their rights to hold.

Instead, the complaint centers on conversations that Downtown Development Director Fred Reeves said he had with city and county officials leading up to the offer being made more than a week ago. Reeves told reporters that he had submitted the offer after “various individual conversations” during which elected officials agreed “that we need to make an offer and that the offer was a number everybody felt comfortable with.”

The most prominent feature of the open meetings law that most people are aware of regards when a public body can discuss the issues before it. As most know, when a body meets with a quorum of typically half of its members plus one, the meeting must be advertised in advance and be open to the public.

The open meetings law also contains another section, which is what prompted the complaint against the city and the county.

According to the law – KRS 61.810 -a public body can’t avoid the requirements of the law by having a series of meetings with less than a quorum to decide an issue. For instance, a 9-member body can’t meet in three separate groups of three members to discuss an issue just to get around the public meeting requirements.

This is what the complaint filed last week addresses – the fact that the city and county essentially discussed and decided an issue in a series of small meetings (“various individual conversations”) rather than in an officially-called, and advertised, public meeting.

Curiously, the same law the city and county are accused of breaking would have afforded elected officials the opportunity to arrive at the same decision and take the same action in private. The open meetings law that allows the public access also provides for certain circumstances when public business can be conducted in private.

Specifically, KRS 61.810 allows for “the deliberations on the future acquisition or sale of real property by a public agency, but only when publicity would be likely to affect the value of a specific piece of property to be acquired.”

The city and county have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to the complaint filed by the Messenger-Inquirer, which has asked that the offer made by the city and county be declared null and void until the two governments arrive at that decision in an official meeting.

To some, this complaint might seem to be nit-picking, since the law allows government the right to discuss certain topics such as buying property without the public listening in.

But commitment to following the rules means following all the rules, particularly during a time when governments on all levels are touting the need for more transparency and accountability.

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