A state attorney general’s opinion, which backed the New Era’s position that Hopkinsville city officials violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act in a closed April 2 committee meeting, will stand. The deadline has passed for the city to appeal the decision, and Mayor Dan Kemp confirmed Friday the city decided against taking the case to circuit court.
This is good news for people across Kentucky who support the open meetings law and what it requires of local and state public agencies. That is, to conduct the public’s business in public — even when it seems awkward or uncomfortable for elected officials and government employees. We hope this decision strengthens the law. Each attorney general’s decision has that potential. This decision, in response to a complaint filed by New Era government reporter Carla Jimenez, certainly clarified important points about how public agencies may and may not go into closed session to discuss personnel issues.
This dispute arose at a Compensation Committee meeting. Kemp had appointed five city council members to the committee to consider his contract offer for Melissa Spurr to become the city administrative officer, more commonly known as the CAO. Spurr, the city budget officer, had been appointed interim CAO, and she was the only candidate for the job.
The open meetings law allows agencies to close meetings to the public and news reporters if the discussion could lead to the appointment, dismissal or discipline of a specific employee. The New Era believed, and the attorney general agreed, Spurr’s consideration for CAO amounted to a promotion. The committee should not have used the personnel exemption for a closed session, the attorney general ruled. The city’s attorneys disagreed, and Kemp reiterated that opinion.
There’s another reason the committee’s closed session violated state law. The five committee members, all council members, invited five additional council members into the meeting. The only reason that should happen, the attorney general wrote, would be if each of those five non-members of the committee had something specific to tell the committee. And if that were the case, each person should have stayed only as long as needed to impart that information. But the extra council members who were not committee members stayed for the entirety of the closed session.
In her open meetings complaint, Jimenez proposed two remedies to the violation. She asked the committee to conduct the meeting again in open session and she asked city officials to acknowledge the violation. Neither will happen. It would be a moot point, if not impossible, to repeat that meeting. Spurr later withdrew from consideration.
Kemp told the New Era he still disagrees with the attorney general’s opinion. “They are wrong,” he said. Also, the city did not want to spend money on legal services to fight the decision. That was a good decision for taxpayers, so we can at least agree with the city on that.
This raises a question about whether a public agency can be forced to admit a violation. The answer, essentially, is no. But it’s also not necessary in this case.
“We don’t need them to admit the violation,” said Jeremy Rogers, a Louisville attorney who advises Kentucky Press Association members on open meetings and open records issues. “The attorney general’s decision has the force and the effect of law.”
Although the New Era requested this attorney general’s opinion against the city, it also serves as a reminder to the general public. You have a role in strengthening the open meetings law. We have said this before, and we will keep repeating it: Demand transparency from your elected representatives and from the government employees who work for you. If you attend a public meeting and you believe public officials are shutting you out, ask them why. Know the law and question every attempt to close a meeting. It is your business.
Kentucky New Era editorials are the consensus opinion of the editorial board, which includes Publisher Taylor W. Hayes, Opinion Editor Jennifer P. Brown and Editor Eli Pace.