Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Agencies told their forms are improper

The office of Attorney General Jack Conway issued two opinions last week criticizing public bodies for denying records inappropriately.

The city of Carrollton violated the Open Records Law when it required a citizen seeking public records to fill out a city form for the request.

Salome Frances Spenneberg Kist in February requested records concerning specific properties in the city. The opinion, issued May 23, said the city cannot require requesters to use a city form. The opinion also criticized the city for failing to respond to Ms. Kist within three days, as the law requires.

The decision quoted a 1994 Attorney General’s opinion: “While the public agency may require a written application, as opposed to an oral request, there is nothing in the (open records) statute which authorizes a public agency to reject a request simply because the requester did not use the specific form devised by the public agency. A particular form may be desired or suggested by a public agency but failure to use that form cannot be the basis for rejecting a request to inspect records.”

In a separate opinion, the office held that the Housing Authority of Morgantown, Butler County, violated the law by asking Robert Cron why he was requesting records and by requiring him to fill out a form.

The opinion quotes a 2006 opinion of the attorney general which held “KRS 61.872(2) does not authorize public agencies to inquire into a requester’s motives in seeking access to public records, or to consider those motives in determining whether the records should be released.”

The office also ruled against a state prisoner who requested legal statutes from the Kentucky State Law Library. The attorney general’s office has previously held that the court system, including the law library, is not bound by the provisions of the Open Records Act.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Inmates lose open-records requests

The Attorney General’s office has upheld the denial of records in two separate cases involving inmates in state prison, ruling the requested documents were exempt under the state’s Open Records Act.

The office of Clifford R. Duvall, commonwealth attorney for Lewis and Greenup counties in northeastern Kentucky, denied Wayne C. Murphy’s request to view the transcripts of a grand jury proceeding. That record is exempt from release under the state’s Open Records Act and under court rules established by the Kentucky Supreme Court. The attorney general ruled that Duvall correctly denied the request.

Murphy, according to the Ashland Independent, was convicted in November 2006 of the rape and brutal bludgeoning of a video store manager in Russell in 2004. The records he sought involved his girlfriend, Tracy L. Chaffins, indicted as the lookout in the incident. Before her trial, she took her own life, according to police.

In a related opinion, the attorney general held that the Greenup County jailer had violated the Open Records Act by failing to respond to Murphy’s request for all records related to the incarceration of William D. Mollett. The opinion also noted that because Murphy is an inmate at Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, the jailer could deny his request if Murphy did not have enough money in his account to cover the copy charges.

In a separate case involving an inmate, the attorney general’s office upheld the decision of the Kentucky State Penitentiary denying an open records request of inmate Anthony Sadler because of his inability to pay for copies of those records.

“The Open Records Act contains no provision for waiver of the prepayment requirements … and (the prison) did not violate the Act in denying Mr. Sadler’s request on the basis that he has insufficient funds in his inmate account to defray the cost of copies. The facility’s actions may work a hardship on Mr. Sadler but are consistent with the Open Records Act and the rule announced in Friend v. Rees,” decided by the state Court of Appeals in 1985.

The office also upheld the denial of a request for records of the Calloway Circuit Court Clerk, based upon a 1978 decision of the state Supreme Court that records held by the court system are not subject to legislative action. In 1998, the attorney general’s office interpreted that to mean court records are not subject to the Open Records Act.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

State high court makes clear that contempt proceedings against jurors must be public

In a ruling that could clear up what it called "continuing confusion" among Kentucky judges, the state Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that criminal contempt-of-court hearings for jurors must be open to the public.

The court ruled that Susan Schultz Gibson, a circuit judge in Jefferson County, "should have allowed the public and media access to a contempt-of-court hearing for a juror" whom she suspected of violating her order to avoid publicity about the case last year, Jason Riley wrote for The Courier-Journal. He and the newspaper were the plaintiffs in the case.

"The ruling overturns a state Court of Appeals ruling that found the issue was moot, since the case was over and no one was asking for the hearing to be held again," Riley wrote. "The high court, however, said the issue must be settled so it does not reoccur." The newspaper's attorney, Jon Fleischaker, told Riley, “It's an important decision for the precise reason we were concerned it could happen again.” (Read more)

City must give plaintiff contracts, personnel files

A city-owned arena can't refuse to release information about its contracts and personnel just because that might put it and its contractor at a disadvantage with competing, private facilities, the attorney general's office ruled in a recent open-records opinion.

The records are being sought by Tad Thomas, attorney for Walter Richard Brotherton, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Corbin, Victory Sports and the man who drove a motorcycle that struck Brotherton at a motocross event at The Arena Jan. 15, Michele Baker of the Corbin Times-Tribune reports.

Attorney General Jack Conway said the city failed to prove that the records are “generally regarded as confidential or proprietary” or that “disclosure would prevent an unfair commercial advantage to competitors” of Victory Sports. "The office also stated the City of Corbin violated the Open Records Act in denying access to public personnel files in their entirety," Baker writes. The city is considering an appeal to Whitley Circuit Court.

Monday, May 2, 2011

AG says Adair County hospital board violated open-meetings law , as newspaper alleged

Adair County Hospital's board of directors was wrong to hold a closed-session discussion about the future of an interim CEO because the discussion was about his retention, not posible discipline or dismissal, the Kentucky attorney general's office found. It also concluded the hospital board did not have sufficient cause to discuss a report by Spectrum Health Partners in private.

Adair County Community Voice Publisher Sharon Barton submitted a written complaint to the board chairman March 30 alleging the violations. To remedy the matter, she asked for a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that had been viewed during the meeting as well as any minutes, notes, records and any other documents that had been reviewed.

The board replied that it was "clearly entitled to discuss this issue in executive session" because it was a personnel issue and so exempt from public discussion.

Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver disagreed, saying the personnel exemption applies only to discussions that might lead to the appointment, discipline or dismissal of an employee, member or student. "This exception shall not be interpreted to permit discussion of general personnel matters in secret," she wrote. "The board acknowledges that the closed session discussion focused on securing the continued employment of the interim CEO and not on reviewing the comparative qualifications of competing applicants for the purpose of identifying the best qualified applicant to fill a vacant position. Although the potential for reputational damage exists where several individuals apply for a position and some must be eliminated based on their lesser qualifications, such potential does not exist where the discussion relates to the continued employment of a current employee."

Bensenhaver also said the board should not have discussed the Spectrum report in closed session. The board was obligated to give notice "in regular open meeting ... of the general nature of the business to be discussed in closed session," she wrote. In correspondence, the board said that the report "contained information on specific individuals that might lead to discipline or dismissal" or might lead to litigation. "Even with this additional information, we believe the board's ... compliance fell short of the statutory requirements," Bensenhaver wrote on behalf of Attorney General Jack Conway.