Wednesday, July 29, 2009

AG decision opens up documents showing county magistrates spending in their districts

Documents showing county magistrates how money has been spent in their districts are public records, the attorney general's office said in an open-records decision last week. The decision pulls back the curtain on a common practice in county governments, divvying up funds for roads on the basis of political representation. Sometimes, actual needs of the districts take a back seat. It could also reveal a perhaps less common but arguably illegal practice, giving magistrates authority to spend money in their districts. They are supposed to be legislators on the Fiscal Court, with no executive power.

Richard Shivel of Russell County asked in writing to see "records related to monies spent by individual Magistrates in their respective districts, and any monies given or set aside" for individual districts or magistrates, including inspection of the folders that magistrates keep of such documents. The county attorney said the folders were personal and could be requested from the individual magistrates at a Fiscal Court meeting. When Shivel appealed to the attorney general, the county judge-executive said the folders are kept in his office, but contained only copies of other documents that could be obtained from the office. Citing a 1991 opinion, the decision said that was no excuse.

"Mr. Shivel should still have access to the folders in order to know which particular documents have been set aside as pertaining to each magistrate’s district," said the decision, written by Assistant Attorney General Jim Herrick and approved by Attorney General Jack Conway. It has the force of law but the county can appeal by filing suit in Russell Circuit Court.

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