The Kentucky Open Meetings Law is broadly understood to require governing bodies such as Hopkinsville City Council to allow the public to attend its meetings. This ensures citizens will know how each council member votes on a range of issues — everything from admission prices at the aquatic center to a decision on building a new city hall. Even the most casual observer of local government understands council members must vote in a public meeting.
There’s another protection in the law that is critical to the public’s understanding of council decisions. Every citizen has a right to know how council members reach decisions, and the only way this obligation is fulfilled is when the council avoids secret meetings.
The council and its legal advisors have demonstrated recently they do not appreciate the spirit of the open meetings law. Rather than looking for opportunities to follow the law, it appears the council looked for every possible loophole at an April 2 Compensation Committee meeting. That’s when a committee of five council members met to discuss a contract offer for Melissa Spurr to become the city administrative officer, commonly known as the CAO.
We believe it’s important for the public to understand why the Kentucky New Era filed an open meetings complaint against the committee chair, Councilman Charlie Henderson, and against Mayor Dan Kemp. This newspaper has a role to encourage transparency in local government, and we don’t take it lightly.
Here’s the background on this issue: The state attorney general’s office ruled last week the Compensation Committee violated the open meetings law for two reasons. First, at the April 2 meeting, the committee improperly invoked an exemption that allows a public agency to meet in private for personnel matters that could lead to the “appointment, discipline or dismissal” of an employee. Spurr, the city budget officer who was appointed interim CAO, was the only candidate for city hall’s top administrative job, and the attorney general agreed with the New Era’s assertion that the committee was essentially considering a promotion for Spurr. A promotion is not covered under the exemptions outlined in the opening meetings law. Next, the committee allowed the mayor, the city human resources director and five other council members to join the closed session. The attorney general said the committee failed to explain what information the nonmembers needed to contribute to the closed session. Also, the law requires that nonmembers remain in a closed meeting only as long as needed to make a specific contribution to the closed session. That didn’t happen. All the nonmembers stayed in the closed session for its entirety.
In responses to the New Era’s open meetings complaint, Kemp and City Attorney Doug Willen stressed that the committee properly gave notice of its plan to meet in closed session. They also emphasized the fact that no action was taken in the closed session.
Both of these explanations miss the point.
By conducting a closed session that the law clearly does not allow, the committee prevented the public from hearing discussion that would explain how council members formed decisions. It does not matter that Spurr eventually removed herself from consideration for the CAO. The committee did not appreciate the public’s right to know how it was conducting the public’s business.
The city can appeal the attorney general’s decision to circuit court. The city hasn’t announced if it will appeal the decision, but the mayor has said he disagrees with the attorney general’s ruling.
In support of transparency, we offer this reasoning from the Kentucky Supreme Court, which adopted the language from the Court of Appeals: “… the exceptions to the open meetings laws are not to be used to shield the agency from unwanted or unpleasant public input, interference or scrutiny.”
Kentucky New Era editorials are the consensus
opinion of the editorial board, which meets every week and includes Publisher Taylor W. Hayes, Opinion Editor Jennifer P. Brown and Editor Eli Pace.