Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.
The incredible demolition of the Capital Plaza Tower, Frankfort’s tallest building brought down after falling into disrepair, offers a stark visual reminder not only of what’s going to happen with continued neglect of reforming Kentucky’s pension systems but also the danger of eroding respect for its open records and meetings laws.
Asserting the right to attend meetings of the Built-to-Suit Selection Committee, which recommended the bidder chosen to demolish that tower and redevelop the area, got The State Journal reporter Alfred Miller a favorable ruling from the attorney general and a lawsuit brought by the Finance and Administration Cabinet. The Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government is representing Miller in that pending lawsuit.
Some politicians also want a new policy legalizing government secrecy and whittling away at Kentucky’s sunshine laws.
House Bill 216 passed by the House State Government Committee on a divided vote is based on the astounding premise that hiding the identities of those who make decisions regarding the commonwealth’s largest public-building projects actually protects the process from corruption.
Since this column was originally published, House Bill 216 was returned to the House State Government Committee.
Instead, an attempt was made to engraft it into House Bill 302 along with other egregious attempts to further erode Kentucky’s sunshine laws, including a proposed amendment that would vastly narrow the scope and application of the Open Records Act by redefining the term “public record” to exclude “any electronic communications . . . using a private cell phone or other private electronic device that is paid for with private funds or . . . a nongovernment electronic mail account.
Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government Director Amye Bensenhaver wrote: “If this bill is enacted into law, it will — without question — represent the single most devastating blow to transparency in government in my 27 years of involvement with the Kentucky Open Records and Meetings Law.”
Is Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who famously opined that sunlight is the “best of disinfectants,” turning over in his grave beneath the University of Louisville law school bearing his name?
Supporters of the bill, including sponsoring Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, reason that identifying committee members could result in builders and vendors exerting improper influence while seeking favorable consideration of their bids on these big-dollar projects.
Yet Petrie admitted repeatedly during the bill’s committee hearing that he couldn’t provide a single example of such corruption in the past.
Also, the law already allows selection committees to consider the bids in executive session.
Not only is HB 216 a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, it’s a dangerous precedent that would further erode access to the government Petrie’s constituents pay for and the progress we’ve made in the last 40-plus years with our state’s robust open meetings and records laws.
“We’re chipping away at the people’s right to know when you do this,” bemoaned committee member Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who voted against this nonsense.
There’s little doubt about what the nation’s founders would think of such a bill.
The ludicrous idea that keeping citizens in the dark is the best way to protect them against corruption would have briefly amused but ultimately outraged James Madison.
Madison certainly would remind lawmakers of his famous axiom: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Interestingly, Madison’s comment was not originally about citizens’ access to government but rather supporting Kentuckians’ access to public education.
But I heartily endorse co-opting the quote as confirmation of his conviction that secrecy in government violates the public good.
The citation also is often used to promote Sunshine Week held annually in conjunction with Madison’s birthday on March 16 to recognize the critical need for open government.
This year’s event could not have come at a more opportune time in Kentucky, where attempts to chip away at the public’s right to know are accelerating.
Center for Open Government supported Sunshine Week with daily blog posts, including a “how to” series designed to help citizens understand the open records and meetings laws, avoid pitfalls in filing information requests and meetings complaints and appeal denials to the attorney general. We also offer a Citizens’ Bill of Rights regarding Kentucky’s open meetings and records laws.
House members could offer tangible evidence that their support for transparency goes beyond lip service on the campaign trail by rejecting HB 216 and confirming that Frankfort favors empowering Kentuckians with the knowledge of who’s spending their money.
Codifying secrecy would cause further weakening and eventual implosion of Kentucky’s sunshine laws which many have been dedicated to creating, advancing and protecting.