For Immediate Release: Friday, October 5, 2018
(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — A recent legal victory for the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government affirms that a closed-door meeting of the Kentucky House of Representatives last year to discuss public-pension reform violated the Open Meetings Act.
House leaders attempted to avoid transparency requirements by characterizing the closed-door meeting as a gathering of the Majority Caucus to which the Minority Caucus was invited.
However, while political parties are allowed to caucus amongst themselves behind closed doors for purposes of determining legislative and political strategy, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate in a recent ruling held that a gathering of both the majority and minority caucuses is not a caucus meeting and therefore cannot be exempted from open-meetings requirements.
The Center for Open Government filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office after the House denied its assertion that it wrongly attempted to avoid the law’s requirements.
House leaders stated they wanted to avoid opening this meeting in order to avoid a tough policy confab in a public setting. Then-Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, stated he held the meeting in private to allow legislators “a more comfortable setting” for discussing controversial recommendations regarding Kentucky’s worsening pension crisis.
However, the attorney general’s office in 17-OMD-228 affirmed the Bluegrass Institute’s position, concluding “there was a quorum present and members of both the majority and minority caucuses present,” that “the meeting was not a caucus meeting and [was] subject to the Open Meetings Act” and that “[i]n closing the meeting to the public without an authorized exception, the House violated the Open Meetings Act.”
House leaders responded by filing a lawsuit against the Bluegrass Institute in Franklin Circuit Court where Wingate issued his ruling affirming the attorney general’s decision.
“Judge Wingate’s ruling offers a needed rebuke of public officials who prefer to deal with controversial policy issues behind closed doors,” Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters said. “The legislature must be held to the same standard of accountability required of every other public agency — especially when the issue being discussed represents arguably the greatest threat to the commonwealth’s economy in history.”
The Bluegrass Institute was represented in the case by Louisville attorney William Sharp and Amye Bensenhaver, a former Kentucky Assistant Attorney General and open government advocate.
As a means of remedying the violation, the Bluegrass Institute proposed the House acknowledge the violation, provide the public with a copy of any written record of audio or video recording of the secret meeting and issue a resolution committing to future compliance with the commonwealth’s nationally recognized open-meetings requirements.
While no minutes or recordings from the meeting have surfaced or been made available, the House conceded after the Bluegrass Institute withdrew its motion for attorney’s fees, in the form of an offer to enter into a joint motion to dismiss, stating that “the parties no longer consider the appeal a beneficial use of resources.”
At the insistence of the Bluegrass Institute’s counsel, the joint motion included language confirming that “dismissal of the appeal will render final” the Franklin Circuit Court’s order.
For more information, please contact Jim Waters at firstname.lastname@example.org, 859.444.5630 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).