The state attorney general’s office ruled in response to a complaint filed by Louisville’s WDRB-TV News that the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) violated the Open Meetings Act when it met behind closed doors to discuss amending former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt’s contract.
The Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government also noted that the April 17 meeting was “marred by several open meetings violations.”
While the law limits closed-door discussions regarding personnel to those that can lead to an employee’s appointment, discipline or dismissal, the board instead discussed and amended Pruitt’s contract, discussing “a general personnel matter that exceeded the scope” of state law, Assistant Attorney General Michelle Harrison wrote in the opinion.
Pruitt resigned immediately following that closed-door meeting on April 17 and was replaced by interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis.
While the KBE has the option of appealing the decision in circuit court, the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government urges it not to take that route.
Instead, the board should acknowledge its error beyond the response offered by Associate Commissioner Kevin Brown, who also serves as the Kentucky Department of Education’s general counsel.
Brown acknowledged the board’s action “constituted a technical violation of Kentucky Open Meetings Act,” but then denied violating the law when the board failed to vote to meet in executive session.
While Harrison agreed with Brown that because the audience was “able to observe a majority of the Board signal its approval by rising and leaving,” she also emphasized that “a public agency should, in the interest of clarity and preserving the agency’s record of actions taken, require each member to verbalize their approval of a motion.”
While many of the KBE members are newly appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin and while board chair Milton Seymore obviously is uncomfortable in his new role as chairman, Brown is longtime counsel and needs to make sure board members were fully informed of their responsibility regarding open meetings and records.
The TV station rightly requested that the KBE:
- Acknowledge violating the Open Meetings Act. (The Center for Open Government would add it needs to be a sincere, not dismissive, acknowledgment of wrongdoing.)
- Void its amendment to Pruitt’s contract.
- Reconvene and act in open session on the contract, if desired.
- Release any records generated by board members during the executive session.
The Center for Open Government urged the board immediately following the April 17 meeting to “make a firm commitment to transparency and accountability both in policy and practice. Educating the members on their duties under Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws is the first step in this important process.”
The Center for Open Government stands ready to help educate policymakers regarding their responsibilities related to the commonwealth’s open meetings and records laws.