Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Judge: Board improperly closed superintendent's evaluation, must pay paper attorneys' fees, fine

The Jefferson County Board of Education violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act when it decided to conduct Superintendent Sheldon Berman's annual evaluation behind closed doors, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Irv Maze ruled Monday. "While it may have been more convenient for the Board and Superintendent to have this discussion held in private," the reasons for doing so given by the board "do not justify closing the meeting to the public."

The Courier-Journal reported Tuesday that the board had decided not to appeal the ruling. Maze cited a 2008 ruling in the case, by Attorney General Jack Conway, that such evaluations must be public unless they might lead to discipline or dismissal. The board tried to make such a justificiation, but only after it had already decided to close the meeting. Ruling the action a "willful" violation of the law, the judge ordered the the board to pay attorney's fees to the newspaper, which had to pay lawyers to deal with the board's appeal of Conway's ruling, plus a $100 penalty.

"This Court is mindful that it is often difficult to discuss matters such as these in public," Maze wrote, but exceptions to the open-meetings law "should be obvious and not manufactured in order to work around the law." While not controlling outside Jefferson County, Maze's decision upholds an attorney general's decision that does have statewide import, so it's a good tool for reporters and editors anywhere in Kentucky to use in arguments against closing such meetings. To read the decision, click here. To download it as a Word document, also from the Web site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, click here.

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