Thursday, February 25, 2010

Senate commttee requires transparency in use of Governor's mansion, aircraft

A state senate committee has moved to transform into law an executive order issued by Gov. Steve Beshear two years ago requiring more transparency in the use of state aircraft and the executive mansion for non-official purposes.

The State and Local Government Committee approved Senate Bill 82, sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown. It would require the governor to disclose use of the aircraft and the mansion for such things as political fundraisers to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. The bill also requires disclosure of the governor's legal defense fund and would prohibit businesses bidding for state contracts from making "substantial" campaign contrtibutions to a statewide candidate within 18 months of applying for a contract. The bill does not apply to legislative candidates.

Committee OKs bill for openness in family courts

UPDATE, March 1: The full House passed the bill but its prospects in the Senate are unclear.

A Kentucky House committee has passed a bill that would open some family court proceedings to the public in a pilot project.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-1 to approved the bill, House Bill 407, sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington. The measure allows the Kentucky Supreme Court to open to public scrutiny seven family courts and monitor the results for four years. However, while the public would be allowed to attend court proceedings, records would remain secret and no audio or video recordings would be permitted. Judges would be allowed to decide whether to participate in the pilot project.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton has favored more transparency in family and juvenile courts, but the legislature and court system have been slow to act, despite a series of reports detailing problems in the state system.

"It does lift the veil of secrecy," Westrom told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It does increase the public's confidence in our justice system."

Increasing transparency in family courts is a trend across the nation, according to Patricia Walker FitzGerald, chief family court judge of Jefferson County, who testified before the committee. FitzGerald said about 30 states allow some public scrutiny of family courts.

The bill now awaits action by the entire House.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Louisville Freedom-of-information session March 13

Do you want to add more depth to your stories by obtaining copies of government records, but you aren’t sure how to get them or what records are open to you? Are public agencies making decisions in closed meetings that should be open to the public and the media? Do you have a web site and are uncertain about what non-original material you can legally post on your site, without violating copyright or fair use laws? And what about those comments your readers are posting on your site? Are you legally responsible for what they say? Are judges going too far when they prohibit journalists from blogging or tweeting from the courtroom during a trial? What about live streaming of a trial on the internet?

You can get the answers to these questions at a Freedom of Information seminar, sponsored by the Louisville Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, on Saturday, March 13, from 9 a.m. to noon at Bellarmine University. The event will be held in the Brown Activity Center, which also houses Frazier Hall and the student cafeteria, in the communication wing, room 203.

First Amendment attorneys Richard M. Goehler and Monica Dias with the law firm of Frost Brown Todd, will present three lively and informative sessions. The first will focus on FOI and open records issues. The second will address legal issues facing bloggers and other operators of internet web sites. And the third will examine the latest judges’ decisions regarding tweeting and blogging from inside the courtroom. Each session will last about 50 minutes. These are interactive sessions where you will have the opportunity to ask legal experts questions on these important topics.

The cost for attending all three session $10 for SPJ members and $15 for non-members. Those who join SPJ at the event may attend for free. Admission is free for students

Registration will begin at 8:45 a.m. The first session will begin at 9 a.m. The final session will conclude at noon.

You must register by March 10 by contacting Robyn Davis Sekula at, or calling 812-981-8223.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bill to open child-abuse death records turned into one for a study that wouldn't be done until 2012

The sponsor of a state House bill that would have required the release of records on children who die from abuse or neglect has amended his proposal to call for more study on the issue instead.

After Rep. Tom Burch of Luisville altered the bill, it passed the House Health and Welfare Committee 13-0. Burch said he was taking into consideration concerns about the bill from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, but that he still supported opening up the records. He told the Lexington Herald-Leader he believes his bill will ultimately lead to more public scrutiny of child-abuse deaths. Kentucky had the highest rate of child death from abuse and neglect in the United States in 2007, according to a study by the advocacy group Every Child Matters Education Fund.

The new version of the bill calls for a panel that would make recommendations by Sept. 30, 2012.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Senate passes bills to open legislative finances, associations of local governments

The Kentucky Senate last week passed without dissent two bills that would make the actions of state government and associations of local governments more open. The bills are now in the House.

Senate Bill 40, sponsored by Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown, would require all state agencies and universities to put their spending records on line by Jan 1, 2011. The bill calls for monthly updates of the amount and description of spending, including any documentation available electronically, for the main databases, while the state's electronic accounting system would be updated weekly.

The bill would do for the executive branch much the same done by the OpenDoor Web site and searchable database that the administration of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear put on line last year. The judicial branch recently joined the system; the bill would effectively put the system into law and make the legislative branch part of it.

Senate Bill 87, also sponsored by Thayer, would extend the same requirements to the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties, and require them to follow state purchasing rules and "adopt ethics and anti-nepotism rules," Jack Brammer reported for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The paper's reporting on expenses of the two groups led to the resignations of both executive directors.

KLC and KACo are funded by dues and insurance premiums paid by local governments. The bill would make clear that such groups are subject to open-records and open-meetings laws, with certain exceptions for their insurance businesses, and require an annual audit of each group’s finances, with the state auditor given access to the findings. House Speaker Greg Stumbo has said he expects the bill to pass the House. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mt. Vernon officials violated open meetings law

The Mt. Vernon City Council and Mayor Clarice Kirby violated Kentucky's open meetings law, according to a ruling from the office of Attorney General Jack Conway.

The opinion issued Jan. 25 said the council had "discussed and voted upon public business during a series of less than quorum meetings by telephone, and the members attending one or more of the meetings collectively constituted a quorum." The council also failed to issue a written response to a complaint about the action submitted to council members by Don Jones. Both are violations of the Kentucky Open Meetings Law.

Mayor Kirby was indicted in December on charges of bribery, insurance fraud, official misconduct and two counts of abuse of public trust. She has pleaded not guilty, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. As a condition of her release from jail, a judge ordered that Kirby not exercise sole authority to pay city bills or spend public money.

The attorney general's ruling said that within several days of her release from jail, Mayor Kirby directed the city clerk to poll "each member by telephone regarding the public business of paying bills and the scope of her authority relative to same."

The Open Meetings Act prohibits “meeting in number less than a quorum for the express purpose of avoiding the open meetings requirements of the Act.”

For the full text of this and other state attorney general opinion issued today, see Links of Interest below. The opinion is 10-OMD-015.