Sunday, March 19, 2000

Allegations of secrecy add up

Governments may have broken openness laws

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sanitation District No. 1, which oversees the sewer systems in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, has come under fire by residents who say its board members are making decisions in secret. But it isn't the only Northern Kentucky public agency or body facing accusations of conducting public business behind closed doors.

        In 1999, the Kentucky attor ney general's office recorded 264 appeals of Kentucky's Open Meetings and Open Records laws, spokesman Corey Bellamy said. Residents appeal the laws when they suspect a public agency has illegally withheld an open record or conducted business in secret.

        In Northern Kentucky, at least three public bodies have come under fire during the past year for allegedly violating Kentucky's Open Meetings Law.

        • Kenton County Fiscal Court is appealing a Feb. 21 attorney general's opinion that said its members held a series of illegal meetings before eliminating a potential jail sitein Elsmere. County Attorney Garry Edmondson has said that phone calls were made to individual commissioners to give them new information on the Elsmere site, not to make a collective decision on the issue. County officials hope to make a test case of their fight to overturn the ruling. Campbell Fiscal Court voted last week to join Kenton County in its appeal.

        If allowed to stand, Mr. Edmondson said, the attorney gen eral's decision would have a “chilling effect” on Kentucky officials, who wouldn't be allowed to talk to each other at church or ride together to a seminar, for fear of being accused of illegally discussing public business and having later actions overturned.

        • The state is investigating the site-based decision-making council at New Haven Elementary School in Union after receiving complaints of inappropriate actions taken in closed session. The council consists of the principal, two parents and three teachers.

        • In May, Ludlow council member Sharon Dietz asked her city's ethics board to decide whether an ordinance that authorized hiring a lawyer to advise City Council on budget matters could be repealed if the vote was based on a discussion that took place at a secret meeting. At that meeting, she said, five council members introduced an ordinance signed by them that called for hiring the lawyer, yet it had not been discussed publicly.

        A letter that the five council members wrote to Mr. Carran on May 10 — three days before the council meeting — states, “Please accept this confirmation of our intent to obtain your representation of the Ludlow City Council in legal matters which have been discussed with you prior to this date.”

        Ludlow's ethics board did not investigate Miss Dietz's complaint, and the other five council members have denied doing anything illegal.

        • In Covington, City Manager Greg Jarvis calls City Commission members almost every day to discuss city issues, Commissioner J.T. Spence said. If not everyone agrees, he calls them back again with alternatives.

        “Items don't go on the (City Commission) agenda, unless they know there are three votes to put them on the agenda,” Mr. Spence said.

        Other commissioners have said that three votes are not required to put items on the agenda, and that the city manager is not seeking a consensus when he calls.

        But Kim Greene, a First Amendment lawyer in Louisville, described Covington's situation as questionable. “The purpose behind the (Open Meetings) law is to let the public participate in some meaningful way in the deliberations,” she said.

        “You are cutting out the public if you've reached a consensus on issues before you even go into the meeting.”

        Terry Whittaker, the Elsmere woman who sought the attorney general's opinion in the Kenton Fiscal Court matter, said the public has a right to hear the information discussed and debated before a decision.

        Ms. Whitaker asked for the attorney general's opinion after Kenton Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd announced at a Dec. 6 news conference that he had spoken individually with members of fiscal court and that they were unanimously rejecting the Elsmere jail site.

        Mr. Edmondson later said that Mr. Murgatroyd misspoke, and that Deputy Judge-executive Scott Kimmich actually had called the fiscal court members. Regardless, Mr. Edmondson said, the calls were made to convey new information, not to seek county officials' consensus on the jail issue.

        Ms. Whittaker noted that the fiscal court came in the next day and cast its vote on the issue with little discussion, and several fiscal court members even brought prepared statements.

        Kenton County has responded by naming Ms. Whittaker as the defendant in Kenton County's appeal. She has hired a lawyer to represent her in a case that could cost her thousands in legal fees.

        Ms. Dietz said she complained to various entities — state and local — but they have refused to look into Ludlow's actions.

        Ms. Greene theorized that many violations of Kentucky's open records or open meetings laws occur because of the turnover among elected officials, who are uninformed about the laws.

        “It would be wonderful if there were more efforts to educate elected officials about these laws,” Ms. Greene said.

        “We don't operate our governments in secret here. We don't have Star Chamber courts. We don't have dictatorships that do what they want behind the velvet curtain.

        “The only way to make sure our society stays free is to maintain the public's right to oversee what its governments do.”

        Andrea Tortora contributed to this story.

        Kentucky's Open Meetings Law, or Sunshine Law, requires public bodies such as school boards, fiscal courts and city councils, to discuss issues in public with a few exceptions — including proposed or pending litigation, or the purchase or sale of property.

        Kentucky's Open Meetings and Open Records Laws are contained in Protecting Your Right to Know, a booklet from the attorney general's office. The booklet also gives advice on what to do if you believe either law has been violated.

        To get a copy, write Missy LaFontaine, Office of the Attorney General, 700 Capital Ave., Frankfort, KY 40601; or call (502) 696-5300.


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