Friday, March 23, 2012

Perry judge-executive acknowledges fiscal court sometimes ignores Open Meetings Act

The Perry County Fiscal Court has acknowledged violating the Kentucky Open Meetings Act by conducting unannounced meetings because, in the words of Judge-Executive Danny Ray Noble, it is for the good of the county.

“Sometimes we do break the Sunshine Law because we have to,” said Noble at the fiscal court meeting in Hazard Wednesday, according to a story in the Hazard Herald.

The Herald story reported Noble said during the meeting Wednesday that the court would meet with an engineer later in the day outside the official meeting, with a quorum present, to discuss water issues in the county. He noted that the engineer was unable to make the meeting Wednesday morning.

Noble said the court sometimes holds unannounced meetings so magistrates can discuss issues and agree on action before a vote is taken during a regular meeting. He said that he believes this makes them more efficient in public meetings.

The open meetings law, enacted in 1974 and amended in 1992, requires that the "the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret."

The law requires that regular meetings must be scheduled at specified times and places which are convenient to the public, and that notice must be given of regularly scheduled meetings and of special meetings not on the regular schedule, which must be adopted and published.

The law forbids elected officials from meeting secretly unless the legislative body first meets publicly, votes to go into closed session by defining the nature of the discussion, and cites a specific exception in the law that allows a closed session. Typically, the most cited exceptions involve specified personnel issues, a threatened or actual lawsuit or the purchase or sale of property. No votes can be taken in a closed session.

Meeting privately to come to predetermined decisions deprives the public of the debate on important policy matters, an abridgment of citizens' role in a democracy. The Kentucky Supreme Court in 1997 ruled that “The express purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to maximize notice of public meetings and actions.”

Citizens who believe a public agency has violated the open meetings law may file a complaint with the presiding officer outlining the perceived violation and suggesting a corrective course. If the agency denies the complaint, citizens can file the complaint with the Kentucky attorney general, whose ruling has the force of law until appealed to circuit court.

Read the Herald story here. In an editorial, the weekly newspaper called for a halt to the practice, saying the fiscal court was "doing the residents of Perry County a great disservice."

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