(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — An open-meetings complaint was filed today by the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government in response to a closed meeting held last week by the Kentucky House of Representatives to discuss the commonwealth’s pension crisis.
The complaint notes the closed meeting “constituted a violation of KRS 61.810(1) which states that ‘[all] meetings of a quorum of the members of any public agency at which any public business is discussed or at which any action is taken by the agency, shall be public meetings, open to the public at all times.’”
None of the 13 exceptions allowing public agencies to hold a meeting of a quorum of its members behind closed doors appears valid in this situation, said Amye Bensenhaver, the open-government center’s director.
“There’s neither a general nor a specific exception to the Open Meetings Act under which discussion of pension reform falls,” Bensenhaver said. “Even if there was, the leaders of the agency — House legislative leaders in this case — must publicly state the law and the exceptions allowing them to meet behind closed doors, which clearly didn’t occur.”
House Speaker Jeff Hoover told reporters following the session that the purpose of closing the doors was to allow lawmakers to question state budget Director John Chilton and PFM, the consultant evaluating the state’s retirement systems, “without the media there and to make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions.”
However, Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters rejects such reasoning, calling it “totally unacceptable” when dealing with taxpayer funds and the public’s business.
“Taxpayers fret about a $40 billion-plus shortfall, thousands of state workers worry about their future and the entire retirement system teeters on the verge of insolvency, and the people elected to fix the problem want to do so in secret and in comfort?” Waters questioned. “Considering the commonwealth’s pension crisis is the worst in the nation and threatens funding for every other public service in Kentucky, such discussion should be the most uncomfortable this legislature ever conducts.”
Past rulings by the attorney general, which carry the force of law in Kentucky, rejected similar reasonings offered to justify previous closed-door meetings of the legislature, including two rulings in 1993 (93-OMD-63 and 93-OMD-64) in response to a proposal to discuss then-Gov. Brereton Jones’s proposed health-care reform.
The attorney general determined in those rulings that according to state law (KRS 61.805(2)(b)), the House of Representatives as a legislative body is a public agency and its meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act.
“The legislature must hold itself to the same standard as it does other public agencies,” Waters said. “A primary purpose of Kentucky’s sunshine laws is so that citizens can see not only the final decision or vote but the discussion, debate and yes, even disagreement, that occurs along the way.”
The institute’s complaint notes that just because no vote was taken or final decision made does not alter the importance of giving citizens access to the discussion and all that occurred within it.
“The open meetings act is premised on the statement that the ‘formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret,’” the complaint states.
Finally, the complaint notes: past attorney general rulings indicate claims that such secret meetings are permissible under the guise of being a “caucus” gathering don’t hold up.
Caucus meetings are meetings held by local, regional and state political parties to discuss policy stances, candidates and political strategies and appointees.
Language from the attorney general’s opinions in the 1993 decisions referenced above are equally applicable to the Kentucky legislature’s August 29 meeting behind closed doors: “Perhaps the meeting was originally intended to be some kind of caucus meeting but at least one of the media persons maintains that every member of the House was invited to attend the meeting regardless of party affiliation. This office does not know who specifically attended the meeting but if invitations were extended to all members, regardless of party affiliation, then, by definition, the meeting was not a caucus meeting.”
A copy of the complaint can be found here, including its recommendations that the House of Representatives’ leadership takes 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 502.330.1816.