Sunday, March 05, 2000

Kenton court condemned for closed meeting




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — This week Dick Murgatroyd got into trouble for doing what elected officials have always done. He talked public business in private with other elected officials.

        It's not supposed to happen. Of course it does. The difference here is that Mr. Murgatroyd, the Kenton County judge-executive, mentioned the meetings at a press conference. In other words, he wore a sign that said, “Catch me.”

        OK, said Terry Whittaker.

        She was against a new county jail in Elsmere. She also knew her rights. In December, she filed four complaints against the Kenton Fiscal Court, alleging it discussed the jail site in violation of a law requiring open meetings.

        The Fiscal Court also bullied citizens into providing their names and cities before attending a Nov. 20 meeting, Ms. Whittaker alleged. Guards were present to enforce the requirement.

        The court ultimately changed its mind about a jail in Elsmere, so Ms. Whittaker's side won. But the complaints she filed are still important, because she won there, too.

        The Kentucky Attorney General's Office condemned the sign-in procedure. It also issued a new, stronger opinion regarding private meetings between elected officials.

        Call me a cynic, but I think politicians will always be inclined to break this law. Too many are afraid to disagree in public. They'd rather work out their differences in private, where trade-offs are more easily negotiated.

        At least citizens have more leverage now.

        On the surface, Mr. Murgatroyd complied with the law by speaking separately with each county commissioner, which is allowed under certain circumstances.

        He said he was only passing along new information about the Elsmere site, not seeking a collective decision. Then he called a press conference to announce a collective decision. Oops.

        In 1980, the attorney general said officials could discuss public business in private as long as group decisions weren't reached. Now a new opinion has been issued: If separate meetings take place with enough people to form a voting quorum, the meetings are not allowed even if no decision is reached.

        Here's the irony: At that December press conference, Mr. Murgatroyd was announcing a change of heart. The jail wouldn't be going in Elsmere after all.

        Ms. Whitaker complained anyway. Good for her. The issue isn't what decision the court reached, but how it did so.

        To be fair, Kenton County commissioners are hardly the only ones dodging the spirit of open meetings.

        Consider the Covington City Commission. Its members generally try to avoid conflict. Almost every day, City Manager Greg Jarvis calls each commissioner with updates on city affairs. On some issues he undoubtedly helps bring about consensus.

        If not all agree, the city manager has to come up with alternatives and call everyone again, says J.T. Spence, a newcomer on the commission.

        “You don't put anything on the agenda unless there's three votes for it,” says former Mayor Denny Bowman, who just resigned to become Covington's recreation director. “We're here to get things done, not turn things away.”

        But why not arrive at those votes through public discussion?

        That happens sometimes, the commissioners say. Other times they do enough homework to avoid complicated meetings.

        Mr. Spence says he would prefer open discussion, but it's not practical.

        If commissioners raise concerns publicly, newspapers may brand them trouble-makers, he says. Or they may lose their colleagues' support on future issues.

        This shouldn't be.

        Elected officials work for us, and part of their job is to ask questions, weigh citizen input, respectfully disagree on occasion and follow their consciences.

        When this is done publicly, officials are less likely to make short-sighted, cliquish decisions. Best of all, we'll trust them more.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.