News Release: Institute’s Center for Open Government prevails in circuit court dispute regarding House’s secret pension meeting
For Immediate Release: May 14, 2018
(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — A Franklin Circuit Court judge has ruled in favor of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government’s claim that the Kentucky House of Representatives illegally conducted a closed meeting to discuss public pension reform.
Judge Thomas D. Wingate rejected the House’s claim that a closed meeting of a quorum of members last summer to discuss a report issued by PFM, the consultant charged with evaluating the state’s retirement systems, was authorized under an exception to the Open Meetings Act for legislative committees other than standing committees.
The Center for Open Government is represented in the case by Louisville attorney William Sharp and former Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, an open government advocate.
Wingate held that a gathering of both the majority and minority parties is not a caucus meeting and that the exception is inapplicable. It is, he ruled, a meeting of a quorum of the members of a public agency – in this case, the legislature – at which public business was discussed.
Because no exception to the Open Meetings Act authorizes closed-session discussions of the commonwealth’s pension system, the House violated the fundamental requirement of public meetings found in the Act, he said.
“Only within the Frankfort bubble can politicians call a closed meeting in which nearly the entire House attends, claim it was a political-caucus session, discuss the most important public policy issue of the day and expect the citizens or judiciary to go along with such nonsense,” Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters said. “We have no problem with separate caucus meetings of political parties behind closed doors but refuse to accept keeping the public and press out to discuss an issue just because it happens to be controversial and make politicians uncomfortable.”
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, was the only lawmaker who walked out of the closed session on Aug. 29 after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade then-Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, to allow the public to attend.
Wingate also rejected the House’s claim that legislative immunity and privilege authorized it to exclude the public from the meeting and prevented the courts from reviewing its actions. He agreed with the Center for Open Government that the “statutory framework adopted by the General Assembly in the Open Meetings Act applies, by its own terms, to the meetings of the General Assembly unless the meeting falls within one of the statutorily prescribed exceptions,” and that the court has authority to review the legal question.
The House appealed a Nov. 1 ruling by the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General in response to an appeal by the Center for Open Government claiming the meeting was illegal because public business was discussed behind closed doors.
“We’re hopeful that Judge Wingate’s prompt and legally persuasive analysis of the open-meetings issues involved in this important case finally resolves the matter,” Bensenhaver said. “It’s now up to the House of Representatives to decide whether to pursue this issue in the appellate courts.”
The Center for Open Government in its complaint requested that House leaders take the following steps for “remedying this violation”:
- Acknowledge that it violated KRS 61.810(1) in conducting a closed meeting of a quorum of its members at which public business was discussed.
- Provide the public with a copy of any written record or audio or video recording of the closed session.
- Issue a resolution committing to future compliance with the requirements of the open meetings law.
For more information, please contact Amye Bensenhaver at 502.330.1816.