Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nominate a local open-govermnent hero for national recognition during Sunshine Week

For the observance of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, you are invited to nominate individuals who have played significant roles in fighting for government transparency. Get the nomination form here. All nominations must be received by Feb. 20.

The 2012 Local Hero will win an expense-paid trip to the American Society of News Editors convention April 2-4 in Washington. Second- and third-place winners will receive $500 and $250, respectively. ASNE and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sponsor Sunshine Week. For more information and the free materials available to all participants, visit the Sunshine Week website.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Elected public officials have a lower expectation of privacy, AG reiterates in Louisville constable case

The state attorney general’s office recently found that the Department of Criminal Justice Training improperly withheld records that could reveal whether Constable David Whitlock of Louisville successfully completed the classes in which he was enrolled at the department, as well as any certifications he received.

Whitlock was involved in a shooting altercation at a Louisville store recently, raising questions about his training and whether he had completed the courses that the Louisville Metro government requires constables to take in order to get performance bonds. When Courier-Journal Staff Writer Joseph Lord requested the records on Nov. 4, the department gave him with a copy of Whitlock’s transcript showing which courses he attended and the number of hours for each course, but excluded the test scores, citing the "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" exception of the Open Records Act.

Attorney General Jack Conway said that as an elected public official, Whitlock represents the public in his work and answers to the voters, so the public has more legitimate interest in him than a general public employee. "Inasmuch as Constable Whitlock, a publicly elected official, enrolled in classes which related to his work and were intended to better qualify him to discharge his duties, the public is entitled to know whether he successfully completed those classes," Conway said.

The decision said it stands for the notion that elected public officials have a lower expectation of privacy than a non-elected public employee, and reiterates a previous decision “that the privacy rights of the public employee extend only to matters which are not related to the performance of his [or her] work.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Disclosing total fees for sewer project does not invade customers' privacy, attorney general rules

The City of Danville violated the state Open Records Act substantively and procedurally when it failed to respond timely and gave an invalid reason for refusing to reveal fees generated by a sewer project, the state attorney general's office has ruled.

On Oct. 12, Clay Moore requested “one copy of the revenue received by the City of Danville, by month for 2009, 2010, and 2011, to date, from commercial and residential sewer fees generated from the Mocks Creek Sewer Project for Northpoint [Training Center], Hunt Farm Subdivision and residential customers of Gwinn Island.”

Moore did not receive a response within three days as the open-records law mandates, and he appealed to Attorney General Jack Conway. On Oct. 31, 19 days after the original request, the city clerk issued a response denying the request on grounds of privacy, the exemption found at KRS 61.878(1)(a). Conway ruled that “disclosing the requested aggregate information would not identify the water and sewer usage of specific individuals,” so “that information cannot properly be characterized as personal.” The law says the exemption applies only in case of “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The attorney general noted a similar case prompted by the city's refusal to let Moore see similar records, and stressed that “the interest of the public in ensuring that the Department has and fairly enforces uniform billing structure for all customers outweighs the nonexistent privacy interest implicated by the disclosure of the requested billing records.” He noted that the city had “generic billing information without individual customer names which could be used to verify billing methodology and calculations.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Child-abuse records were opened in 1990s

Though it made big, breaking news last week, releasing state records about severe child abuse isn't new in Kentucky, writes Joseph Gerth, right, in a column in The Courier-Journal.

"During Gov. Brereton Jones' term in office from 1991-1995, the state social-work agency released child-fatality reports on its own," he writes. "That came after an earlier tragic death of a child in Wayne County who was beaten to death by his stepfather after numerous contacts with state social workers."

Gerth's column comes after last Tuesday's announcement by Gov. Steve Beshear that he ordered the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release records pertaining to children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse or neglect. "Transparency will be the new rule," he said.

Gerth said Beshear "finally gave in to mounting pressure from the media, an angry judge and frustrated legislators to release the records involving the death of a Wayne County toddler who drank drain cleaner that was allegedly being used to produce methamphetamine," Gerth writes. The C-J and the Lexington Herald-Leader had long been suing the cabinet to release documentation pertaining to the case and Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd had twice ruled the cabinet do so.

In the 1990s, it was then-cabinet Secretary Masten Childers II who ordered that child-fatality records be released. "The reports showed that the agency wasn't doing its job and that low-paid social workers were stretched thin and handling too many cases," Gerth writes. "Jones ultimately called for raising the pay for the lowest-paid social workers ... and he called for hiring 60 more social workers across the state. Could it have been that Childers believed more in openness than the current secretary, Janie Miller?" (Read more)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Whitley County clerk ignores open records decision

The Whitley County Clerk has decided to ignore an opinion of the Attorney General's office that she is charging too much for copies and that record-seekers are within the law when using their own scanners to make copies.

Whitley County Clerk Kay Schwartz told the News Journal that she is posting her own rules, setting a fee of 50 cents per page for record copying and barring the use of hand-held scanners. Both practices violate an attorney general's opinion issued Oct. 13.

Allison Martin, communications director for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, told the News Journal that since the ruling wasn't appealed within 30 days, it has the force of law.

"The Whitley County Clerk is in violation of the law by charging 50 cents per copy," Martin said.

Clerk Schwartz is the president of the Kentucky County Clerks Association. She said the association will try to convince the legislature to set the copying fee at 50 cents per page. The current allowable fee is 10 cents per page. In the meantime, unless her practice is challenged in court, she is continuing to defy the law.

Read the News Journal story here.