News Release: AG supports Center for Open Government’s claim that House’s secret meeting violated Open Meetings Act

BIPPS Logo_pickCOG LOGOFor Immediate Release: November 6, 2017

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — The Kentucky Office of the Attorney General in response to a complaint filed by the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government has ruled that the House of Representatives violated the Open Meetings Act when it met “with a quorum present” behind closed doors to discuss a consultant’s controversial recommendations for addressing the commonwealth’s public-pension crisis.

Former House Speaker Jeff Hoover argued in his response to the Center’s complaint that the gathering was not subject to the Open Meetings Act since it was held by the Majority Caucus but was also open to the Minority Caucus, and that both caucuses are exempt from the law.

Closed-caucus meetings are held in separate locations by the respective political parties’ legislators in the House and Senate during General Assembly sessions to choose leaders and plan the flow and strategy of legislation.

However, the Center for Open Government in its complaint noted the gathering was not a permissible closed-caucus meeting since a quorum of all House members were present.

“The presence of members of the minority party at a meeting of the Majority Caucus is factually antithetical to Speaker Hoover’s characterization of that meeting as a majority caucus meeting,” the complaint stated.

Center for Open Government Director Amye Bensenhaver praised the Attorney General’s office for its ruling.

“Our purpose in bringing this legal challenge was to ensure that House members were held to the same standard of accountability they have required of all other state and local agencies since the Open Meetings Law was passed,” Bensenhaver said. “The attorney general’s decision secures the public’s rights under the act and confirms that the act must be applied even-handedly to those at every level of government.”

The decision listed as 17-OMD-228 was written by Assistant Attorney General Matt James, who quotes from a previous decision involving similar complaints by noting the fact that state law differentiates between standing legislative committees and all other committees when it comes to open-meetings requirements.

In that decision, which involved a closed meeting by the House to consider health-care reform, the Attorney General’s office noted: “If the House of Representatives was, generally, excluded from the coverage of the Open Meetings act, then the law would not make a distinction as to what kinds of House Committees are excluded from the provisions of the Act.”

House leaders will have 30 days to appeal or discuss with the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government the following proposed remedies, including that the House leadership should:

• Acknowledge it violated the statute requiring the challenged meeting be open to the public.

• Release to the public any written record or audio or video recording of the closed meeting.

• Issue a resolution committing to future compliance with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
Hoover claims the meeting on Aug. 29 – the day following the release of PFM Consulting’s contentious recommendations calling for cutting retirees’ cost-of-living benefits and freezing benefits for current public workers and moving them into a 401(k)-style plan – allowed lawmakers to question the consultant and state budget Director John Chilton “without the media there and to make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions.”

“Comfort and convenience cannot be the determinants in whether transparency laws are followed,” Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters said. “These laws exist to ensure that the formation of public policy – the discussion, debate and disagreement of proposed reforms – is just as much a part of the public’s business as the final vote tallies on bills.”

James also rejected Hoover’s claim that applying the Open Meetings Act to such gatherings “would violate separation of powers,” noting the legislature hasn’t exempted itself and has specifically directed the attorney general to issue decisions on these disputes.

Waters said the ruling rightly rejects claims the public can be denied access to this assembly involving an overwhelming quorum of the entire House of Representatives concerning the most significant threat to Kentucky’s future economic security and well-being “because this was just a big political caucus meeting.”

“To support such an approach would allow – perhaps even encourage – the entire House to close its doors to any meeting involving difficult discussions,” Waters said.

For more information, contact Amye Bensenhaver at abensenhaver@freedomkentucky.com or 502.330.1816 (cell).

Speak Your Mind

*