What do you do if the state’s top law enforcement officer issues a lengthy decision informing you that you’re in violation of the Kentucky Open Records and Open Meetings Act? If you’re the Letcher County Board of Education, you violate the law again just as soon as you get the chance and then vote to appeal the decision at a potential high cost to taxpayers.
On June 7, the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General ruled that the Letcher School Board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by failing to give proper notice of the nature and purpose of a closed session the board held the month before. Writing for Attorney General Jack Conway, in a seven-page opinion, Assistant AG James M. Herrick said board members violated the law by keeping the public out of their discussions about general budget issues and general personnel matters, including a decision to abolish three staff positions.
The Open Meetings Act says government agencies may only meet behind closed doors for three purposes:
• to talk about the future acquisition or sale of real property, but only when publicity would be likely to affect the value of a specific piece of property to be acquired or sold by a public agency.
• to discuss proposed or pending litigation against or on behalf of the public agency.
• to hold a discussion or hearing which might lead to the appointment, discipline, or dismissal of an individual employee, member, or student. “This exception shall not be interpreted to permit discussion of general personnel matters in secret,” the law states.
The AG’s opinion says the Letcher Board also violated the Open Meetings Act when it voted to go into closed session without being more specific about who or what would be talked about. “Merely invoking a single word such as “litigation,’ ‘personnel,’ or ‘property” … is clearly inadequate to comply with” the law, the opinion says.
The Attorney General’s opinion was issued in response to a complaint filed by Mountain Eagle reporter Sally Barto after a courtesy letter she had written earlier to Board Chairman Robert Kiser and Board Attorney Darrell Hall failed to bring a stop to what has become a pattern of closed sessions being held illegally. The May 7 meeting was cited in Barto’s complaint because at the time it was the latest instance in which the board was in clear violation of a law that is very simple to understand.
Since then, the Letcher board has violated the Open Meetings Act at least two more times. The first time occurred on June 5, when the board voted to go into closed session to discuss hiring a superintendent without stating that it would be doing so. The second violation occurred Monday night when the board voted to again go behind closed doors to discuss “possible litigation” without stating that said litigation had to do with the Attorney General’s June 7 opinion.
In filing the complaint with the AG’s office, the Mountain Eagle was not trying to pick a fight with the Letcher County Board of Education or any of its members. We did so to protect our right to be able to inform the public about what is going on with local government agencies and the officials elected to run them. As the Kentucky Supreme Court has observed, as noted in the AG’s opinion, “The express purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to maximize notice of public meetings and actions. The failure to comply with the strict letter of the law in conducting meetings of a public agency violates the public good.”
When public agencies hold secret meetings with little to no explanation of why these “executive sessions” are necessary, it makes us — and the public we serve — wonder what is going on behind those closed doors. It gives the perception that there is something to hide, something that a public agency doesn’t want the public to know.
The Letcher County Board of Education has been going into executive sessions at the end of its meetings for at least three years now. Some secret sessions have been short, most have lasted between 30 minutes and an hour, and a few have dragged on for an hour and a half.
Each time, the board chairman, past and present, has announced that,“underauthorizationofKRS61.810,b,candfamotionis needed to go into closed session for the purpose of discussing personnel, property and/or litigation.” As the Attorney General’s opinion states, this is clearly “less than a detailed description of the matter to be discussed” and is therefore illegal.
Rather than spend taxpayers’ money to appeal a decision they will almost certainly lose, we hope the members of the Letcher County Board of Education will simply start obeying the Kentucky Open Records and Open Meetings Act.
After all, what is there to hide?