This newspaper filed a formal complaint with the city of Hopkinsville on June 6, alleging a violation of the Kentucky Open Meetings Law during the previous night’s city council meeting. It appeared to the New Era, and hopefully to others, that council member Ann Cherry’s proposed amendment to the smoke-free ordinance was kicked around with other council members before the public meeting.
A few days later, in a letter from Mayor Dan Kemp to the newspaper, the city said the New Era failed to provide evidence that council members met in small groups that collectively amounted to a quorum of the council for the purpose of avoiding the requirements of the open meetings law. The city denied a violation occurred.
The open meetings law says members of public agencies, like the council, may not avoid the requirements for open meetings by running difficult topics through a series of smaller meetings. But it also says this provision of the law shall not be construed to prohibit talks among individual council members “where the purpose of the discussions is to educate the members on specific issues.”
So what’s to prevent city council — or any other public agency whose governing board is covered by the open meetings law — from leaving the public in the dark about how its members decide to vote on different proposals?
Often it’s going to be the members of the agencies and the constituents. The members of governing boards who respect the spirit of the open meetings law will accept that the public has a right to see and hear how they reach their decisions. Sometimes, that means having difficult conversations in an announced meeting that is open for everyone to see. The constituents also have a role in the transparency. They can make clear to elected officials what they expect. And like this newspaper, they can file complaints even when they realize they might not be able to prove a violation.
Council members, magistrates, school board members and others who are elected or appointed to serve the public might think twice about wiggling around the law if they hear often from members of the public who want more transparency.
Council member Cherry’s amendment, which sought a smoking-ban exemption for businesses with 12 or fewer employees, failed at the June 5 meeting. The next discussion of the smoke-free ordinance is scheduled to occur at the council’s Aug. 23 Committee of the Whole meeting.
The New Era wrote a letter to Kemp on Thursday saying the newspaper will not appeal the city’s denial of the open meetings complaint to the state attorney general. Although it appears Cherry tested the waters before a council meeting to see if she could build support for her smoking ban amendment, we concede our allegation could be difficult to prove.
But we are appealing to another authority — the public.
Get involved. Learn the law. Tell elected officials when you believe they are making it difficult to follow their moves.