The Courier Journal headline, “Experts: U of L officials improperly invested own money in foundation-backed companies,” gave no indication that the article’s introductory sentence would identify violations of the Kentucky open meetings law.
But reporter Andrew Wolfson prefaced his article with the statement, “They met in President James Ramsey’s conference room, with no notice to the public.”
“They were called the ‘Entrepreneurial Group,’” he explained, describing the group as “a select panel of University of Louisville Foundation board members, officers and outside consultants who recommended investments in new ventures to the foundation and to Ramsey.”
As an advisory committee of a public agency, the “Entrepreneurial Group” was also — these facts strongly suggest — a public agency for open meetings purposes.
Its most offensive acts did not consist of apparent open meetings violations including but not limited to the failure to give notice of, and admit the public to, its meetings. But the culture of secrecy within which the group operated contributed to the abuses with which the foundation is charged, enabling them to go unchecked far too long.
This is not the first time that allegations of open meetings violations have been leveled against the foundation. Here the allegations involve a committee established by the foundation.
And this is the critical point.
By its express terms the open meetings law applies to “any board, commission, committee, subcommittee, ad hoc committee, advisory committee, council, or agency. . .established, created, and controlled by a public agency.”
Absent this statute, a public agency could avoid the requirements of the open meetings law, and accountability to the public, by establishing committees of less than a quorum of its total membership to conduct its business behind closed doors and convening publicly for the limited purpose of taking action. No discussion. No debate.
So much for the legislative recognition that “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
But the open meetings law does not permit this outcome. Committees of public agencies, even committees established for the exclusive purpose of advising, are themselves public agencies. A quorum of the committee is based on the total number of committee members and not on the total number of members of the public agency that created it.
It is surprising how few public agencies acknowledge this fact.
Committees must adopt a schedule of regular meetings and treat all other meetings, including rescheduled regular meetings, as special meetings, observe the requirements for conducting closed sessions, record minutes of their meetings, provide meeting room conditions that allow effective public observation, and in all respects “maximize notice of [their] meetings and actions.”
Given the gravity of the consequences that flow from noncompliance with the open meeting law, including the voiding of action taken at an illegal meeting, public agencies must understand and implement the duty to treat any of their committees as discrete public agencies and ensure that they adhere to the letter of the law in conducting meetings. Failure to do so, the courts have noted, “would thwart the intent of the law.”