More about that report later, but first the good news. Two articles and one editorial published late this week identify local agencies that are moving in the right direction toward open and accountable government.
The State Journal reports that a “work group” formed by — and consisting of — Frankfort and Franklin County officials for the purpose of selecting “a consultant to assist with redevelopment of land beneath the Frankfort Convention Center and Fountain Place shopping center” will comply with the Open Meetings Law in conducting it meetings.
That work group, rechristened the Frankfort/Franklin County Planning and Advisory Committee for Redevelopment of the Capital Plaza and Associated Areas, had been meeting behind closed doors in spite of vigorous objection.
Insider Louisville reports that the Louisville Metro Police Department has reversed its previous denial of an open records request for weekly “Compstat” crime reports, containing detailed crime statistics, and will publish the reports on its transparency page.
LMPD’s initial denial was based on its characterization of the Compstat reports as “preliminary data” and “an internal working document/draft that is fluid an everchanging.”
And in an editorial that should be mandatory reading for every law enforcement agency in the state, the Kentucky New Era commended the City of Hopkinsville and it’s police department for its “immediacy and transparency” during and after an internal affairs investigation of a police officer that led to the officer’s resignation.
Such investigations are regularly shrouded in secrecy while they are proceeding and after they are concluded. Law enforcement agencies erect every conceivable barrier to access.
“It’s never easy for a police department to investigate one of its own,” the New Era opined, “but ultimately, protecting citizens and their rights is part of their duty as law enforcement officers.”
Regardless of whether these actions were prompted by public pressure or a sincere commitment to open government, this good news is reassuring to access advocates in this state who read with concern a September 19 Associated Press article. That article identifies a new and menacing tactic in public agencies’ assault on open government.
The article’s title tells the story: “Governments turn table by suing public records requesters.”
It identifies several cases across the country in which public agencies – resisting disclosure of “embarrassing or legally sensitive” records – have gone on the offensive and filed lawsuits against open records requester rather than granting or denying their requests as state laws require. The requesters, often private citizens with limited incomes, are forced to absorb the cost of litigation, rather than the nominal cost of reproduction, to obtain public records.
Kentucky figures prominently in the article which spotlights the University of Kentucky’s and Western Kentucky University’s legal actions against student journalists. Although the article conflates these judicial appeals under the Open Records Law with preemptive lawsuits in other states, the message is the same.
This — on top of news of lawmakers across the country “chipping away” at open records laws by carving out new exceptions for particular types of records or creating blanket exemptions for certain public officials or agencies – should set off warning bells for anyone who espouses support for open government but takes the laws supporting that principle for granted.
Add to this news of escalating obstructionism by agencies that exploit loopholes/technicalities in their state’s laws to postpone or deny the public’s right of access and unapologetic editorials by public officials weary of the “inconvenience” these laws create, and open records advocates might reasonably despair.
But the AP article also points out that a New Jersey court dismissed a suit filed by a town against a person who requested police surveillance video, characterizing the lawsuit as the “antithesis” of open records policies aimed at promoting access. And in Michigan, lawmakers enacted legislation making it illegal for agencies to sue records requesters after a county sued a newspaper that had requested the personnel files of two public employees.
Regardless of whether the good news outweighs the bad news, across Kentucky, and across the nation, the struggle for open government continues.