On May 7 the Bluegrass Institute reported on an April 30 meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Education. Nothing especially newsworthy there except that the board conducted this meeting at a highly questionable time and place.
The meeting was conducted at 4:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon in the office of a private law firm located on the 28th floor of PNC Plaza, 500 W. Jefferson Street, in downtown Louisville instead of the board’s regular meeting site.
The stated reason for the unusual time and location? This was the only time all board members were available to meet and “the law office was used so as to not inconvenience district employees who would have to open a building on a weekend.”
The Kentucky open meetings law requires public agencies to conduct their meetings at “specified times and places which are convenient to the public.” The law makes no reference to the convenience of agency employees.
This is one of the objections we raised when we submitted an open meetings complaint to JCPS chairman Chris Brady on June 21.
Leaving aside the unusual decision to conduct the meeting on a Sunday afternoon – which might discourage some attendees — we alleged that the board’s April 30 meeting violated the open meetings law because the meeting was conducted at an inconvenient location. In support, we cited a 2016 open meetings decision issued by the attorney general’s office determining that a meeting conducted in a private residence was inconvenient to the public.
That open meetings decision, 16-OMD-178, was based on legal authorities dating back to 1949 recognizing that a public meeting must be held in “a place from which no part of the citizens . . . may be excluded by reason of not feeling they may freely attend.”
As a means of remedying the violation we proposed that the board acknowledge its violation of KRS 61.820(1) and agree to conduct all future meetings at times and places convenient to the public, namely its regular meeting site, unless the site does not provide adequate space, seating and acoustics.
JCPS denied our complaint, emphasizing the lack of proof that “any member of the public was in fact dissuaded from attending the meeting because of its location” and distinguishing a meeting held in a downtown office building from a meeting held in a private residence.
Chairman Brady noted that the downtown office building where the meeting was conducted “contains restaurants, a convenience shop and, until recently, a bank all of which are frequented by the general public during the week.” He maintained that “public, prominently-identified elevators transport the public to offices throughout the building, including the 28th floor offices of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs where entry doors are (and were on the day of this meeting) wide open during the day.”
It was his position that “the public would have no reason to believe that accessibility would be any different for the April 30th public meeting even though that day was a Sunday.”
This is where we disagree.
Experience teaches that access to private offices is generally limited to business invitees during business hours. Private offices are entirely inaccessible to the public during nonbusiness hours. Members of the general public do not freely enter and exist nonpublic buildings and offices at any time.
And certainly not on Sundays.
We confirmed this on a recent visit to PNC Plaza. At 4:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon we were unable to gain admittance through any of the doors to the building fronting Jefferson Street. All of these doors were locked. On our final attempt to enter through a side door on Fifth Street, a guard unlocked the door. He confirmed that the doors to the building are locked on the weekend, and that if members of the public somehow gain admittance they are not permitted to take the elevators to the private offices located in the building.
None of the businesses which JCPS identified in its response were open much less accessible to the public. As we were leaving, an individual who appeared to be an employee of one of the businesses located in the building admitted himself through an electronically activated door using a badge.
Whatever special provision was made for JCPS’s board meeting on April 30, to suggest that the meeting was conducted in “a place from which no part of the citizens . . . may be excluded by reason of not feeling they may freely attend” flies in the face of reasonable expectation and common experience. To assert that “the public would have no reason to believe that accessibility would be any different for the April 30th public meeting even though that day was a Sunday” is, at best, disingenuous.
Absent compelling justification, such as the inability to provide adequate space, seating or acoustics, the decision to conduct the meeting in any location other than JCPS’s regular meeting site was and is indefensible.