Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Butler County appeals open-meetings decision

The Butler County Fiscal Court has voted to appeal an open-meetings decision of the attorney general to Butler Circuit Court, according to the Bowling Green Daily News. The decision is 10-OMD-043, issued March 3.

The attorney general's office agreed with Robert D. Cron, a candidate for county judge-executive, that magistrates of the fiscal court violated the state Open Meetings Law by meeting with the county sheriff with less than a quorum to discuss the budget for his office. The attorney general said this violated a section of the Open Meetings Act written to prohibit just such meetings. These closed-door series of secret meetings deprived the public of any information that was discussed regarding policy, operations, salaries, new hirings or a host of other issues related to the operated of the sheriff's department.

In ruling against the fiscal court, the attorney general's office said everyone in the county has a compelling interest in ensuring that the sheriff has enough money to enforce the law countywide, and:

Contrary to the Fiscal Court’s view, the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is not only to prohibit decision makers from making decisions that affect the entire community "in ‘back rooms’ outside the eye of the public," but also "to prevent the decision makers from having discussions of public issues” critical to the broad public interest outside the eye of the public."
This is not the first time the Butler County Fiscal Court has disregarded its obligation to the law and to the citizens of the county by holding secret meetings. A year ago, the attorney general found that the fiscal court's finance committee had violated the open meetings law by not giving public notice of those meetings. A citizen also said a series of meetings had been held to avoid a public meeting. That is opinion 09-OMD-014, issued Jan. 26, 2009.

The law states, "Any series of less than quorum meetings, where the members attending one (1) or more of the meetings collectively constitute at least a quorum of the members of the public agency and where the meetings are held for the purpose of avoiding the requirements of subsection (1) of this section," which provides that “All meetings of a quorum of the members of any public agency at which any public business is discussed or at which any action is taken by the agency, shall be public meetings, open to the public at all times."

The Bowling Green newspaper said in an editorial, "Elected officials in Butler County should back down on this appeal. It is clear they were holding secret meetings. They should also remember they work for their constituents, the taxpayers who pay their salaries, and it is not only appropriate to hold open meetings so they can follow the business of the county, it is the law."

UPDATE, April 9: The appeal has been filed, as a lawsuit against Cron, who is being defended by Louisville lawyer Jon Fleischaker, chief author of the open meetings law, Andrew Thomason reports for the Daily News.

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