Sunday, March 20, 2016

Open meetings law, the other aspect of government transparency

A government acts through its people, and the decisions of the government are often made during open meetings.

Though this blog often focuses on Kentucky open records decisions, the open meetings decisions issued by the state's attorney general also factor into the overall scheme of individuals' ability to keep an eye on state and local governments.

A recent open meetings opinion discussed one limitation placed on public agencies in holding meetings.

In re: Lawrence Trageser/Spencer County Fiscal Court, 16-OMD-036 (issued March 10, 2016), Trageser filed a complaint with the fiscal court on January 7, 2016, charging that magistrates had met with the sheriff in less than quorum meetings to avoid discussion of the sheriff's budget in a public meeting, according to the attorney general's opinion. Trageser urged that the meetings would have collectively constituted a quorum of the fiscal court. 

The magistrates responded to Trageser on January 11, in a reply prepared by the Spencer County Attorney, and acknowledged the meetings, according to the facts in the opinion. The magistrates also acknowledged that they would have constituted a quorum.

The baseline for Kentucky open meetings law appears in KRS 61.810(1). 

That statute states that "[a]ll 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 statute then lists a number of exceptions to the general rule. 

Based on these facts between Trageser and the fiscal court, the attorney general's office found that the fiscal court had violated KRS 61.810(2). That statute reads:
Any series of less than quorum meetings, where the members attending one . . . 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, shall be subject to the requirements of subsection (1) of this section. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to prohibit discussions between individual members where the purpose of the discussions is to educate the members on specific issues.
The attorney general's opinion relied on its reasoning from an earlier instance that it described as "a nearly identical factual context" in which several members of the Butler County Fiscal Court had met with the county's sheriff, "in a series of less than quorum meetings, to discuss the sheriff's budget." 

Here, the AG's opinion discussed its earlier analysis that "'[t]he right of the public to be informed transcends any loss of efficiency,' and that the public’s right to be informed includes not only the right to know what decisions are made but how they are made." (The opinion cited to Lexington Herald-Leader Co. v. Univ. of Ky. Presidential Search Comm., 732 S.W.2d 884, 886 (Ky. 1987), and KRS 61.800.)

Finding that its decision concluding that magistrates for the Butler County Fiscal Court had violated the state's open meetings law, the AG opinion also found that the actions of the magistrates in Spencer County also constituted a violation of the act. 

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