Sunlight – the best disinfectant
By Sam Terry
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Kentuckians love to sing about the sun shining brightly in our old Kentucky home, and this Sunday marks the 40thanniversary of a different way in which sunlight benefits all Kentuckians. The Kentucky Open Records Act may sound like a dull subject, but to the media and to every citizen, it is one of the most important laws passed in modern times.
Prior to June 19, 1976, not unlike today, there was great distrust of government and what government bodies were doing out of the public eye. Forty years ago local governments could hide their spending and when mistakes were made they could be easily hidden from the public’s knowledge. The law was a follow up to the Open Meetings Act of 1974 that required elected and appointed officials to have open meetings and specified the circumstances when such groups could meeting out of the public eye.
Now more than four decades later, the law has withstood the test of time. Kentuckians have the assurance that they can know what their government is doing, from the state level down to the smallest town council or the thousands of boards and commissions that deal with taxpayer money.
The Open Records Act clearly states the General Assembly’s intent that, “a free and open examination of public records is in the public interest,” and “even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” Thanks to these two laws, the average citizen – as well as the press – can see what state and local government is doing.
Of course, that’s the “perfect world” scenario. It doesn’t always work that way in real life. In the counties comprising the Jobe Publishing service area, we see all too frequently that officials are willing to turn a blind eye to the law and do things as they wish. Hardly a month passes that in one or more communities there are examples of officials – from fiscal courts to city councils to school boards to quasi-government agencies – that are willing to skirt these laws.
Elected officials and citizen-appointees provide an important service to our communities as part of our form of government. They are well-intentioned, good-hearted, giving people. They spend taxpayer dollars. They make decisions that affect everyone who resides in their communities. Unfortunately, they also sometimes have the attitude that they should conduct the people’s business in private.
Kentucky’s Open Meetings Act provides thirteen specific situations in which a body may go into closed session. They generally deal with personnel, litigation, and property transactions in which the value of the property might be affected if discussed in open session. The rules of the Open Meetings Act are not complicated and there’s no excuse for anyone – citizen-appointees, elected officials, and their paid staff – to not understand how they must operate. These are not the media’s rules, but they are state law and not following them is illegal.
In recent weeks we’ve observed multiple instances in which bodies inappropriately went into closed session without fully stating, as required by the Open Meetings Act, the specific Kentucky Revised Statute allowing the closed session and what they will be discussing in that closed session. We’ve documented cases in which bodies inappropriately took votes behind closed doors and admitted discussing subjects other than the one they announced prior to the session. We’ve observed bodies making motions to move into a closed session because they didn’t want the public to know their practices. After objection, that body simply changed the subject and left the questions unanswered. We’ve observed property transactions handled inappropriately and decisions made behind closed doors that affect thousands of people who had no knowledge of the decisions being made.
We’re also aware of instances in which local officials were reluctant to open their books and let citizens, who have every right as guaranteed by law, to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. Further, some officials have rolled a stumbling block in the way of both the media and individuals by making it difficult to obtain copies of records. Thankfully, because of the Open Records Act which gives the Kentucky Attorney General the authority of law, those records were obtained.
In the six counties served by Jobe Publishing, there are more than 225 groups that fall under the jurisdiction of the Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act. It is essential that every member of these groups have appropriate training about Open Meetings and Open Records laws. Circumventing the law is not acceptable and ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Earlier this month marked the 100th anniversary of Louisville native Louis Brandeis being sworn in as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. One of the most brilliant legal minds of the 20th century, Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Fortunately, these “sunshine laws” give the media and the average Kentuckian some leverage to insist on accountability and transparency from their government. Shining light on the sometimes shadowy government is, indeed, a good thing.