The old real estate adage, “location is everything,” is roughly equivalent to the statutory recognition in Kentucky’s open meetings law that all meetings of public agencies must be held at “places which are convenient to the public.”
In a recent open meetings decision construing this legal requirement, which is found at KRS 61.820(1), the attorney general recognized that a proper meeting place “must not only be one to which the public is generally invited and may freely attend, but it must also be a place from which no part of the citizens are expressly excluded or who may be excluded by reason of not feeling they may freely attend.” 16-OMD-178, quoting City of Lexington v. Davis.
The attorney general thus reaffirmed the longstanding view that “a public meeting presupposes the right of the public freely to attend . . . . Anything which tends to ‘cabin, crib or confine’ the public in this respect would be destructive of the right expressly provided.” 02-OMD-078, quoting Davis at 754.
In 16-OMD-178, the attorney general adopted 13-OMD-186 in holding that a city commission improperly conducted a public meeting in a private residence, a place that was not “convenient to the public,” in contravention of KRS 61.820(1). Instead, the attorney general declared, an agency must conduct its meetings in a public building to which attendees are admitted without impediment.
What, then, was the Jefferson County Board of Education thinking when it elected to conduct a recent special meeting to discuss selection of an interim superintendent on a Sunday and in a private law firm located on the 28th floor of a downtown office building which generally limits admittance to business invitees?
The board maintained that “the law office was used so as to not inconvenience district employees who would have to open a building on a weekend.”
However, convenience to district employees is not a requirement of the open meetings law; convenience to the public is.
Leaving aside questions relating to the adequacy of the meeting place as to space requirements, seating capacity and acoustics, the board’s choice was ill-advised and possibly illegal.
It’s our understanding that only three people attended the meeting to monitor the discussion of this crucial matter of broad public interest. Is any greater proof of the board’s poor selection of a meeting place required?
The board’s choice of meeting places, indeed all its decisions with respect to its public meetings, should be driven by the legislative recognition that “the formation of public policy is public business” and not by concerns for the inconvenience of district employees.
While much of the Sunday meeting was conducted in closed session – a decision we previously questioned – we remind the Jefferson County Board of Education that any “failure to comply with the strict letter of the law in conducting meetings of a public agency violates the public good.” E. W. Scripps Company v. City of Maysville, 790 SW2d 450, 452 (Ky. App. 1990).
This is particularly true when the meeting involves matters as weighty as the selection of an interim or permanent superintendent for the commonwealth’s largest school district which finds itself under siege on multiple fronts.
-Amye Bensenhaver is director of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government.