When agencies violate open meetings law, ‘sorry’ shouldn’t be sufficient

Published 8:34 am Thursday, June 1, 2017


Guest columnist

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” said the late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was born in New York City in 1906, joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, worked in computer programming following the war, resumed active service at the age of 60 and became the nation’s oldest serving naval officer before retiring in 1986.

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Put another way, Hopper’s saying encourages: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”

Most of us would find such an approach acceptable in the field of computer programming.

Had Hopper been as lethargic as most in that field during her day, she never would have led a team that created the world’s first computer programming language compiler.

However, it’s never “a good idea” to break the law, including laws designed to protect not only the rights but practical abilities of citizens to hold government agencies and officials accountable — even if the unlawful activity is accompanied by offenders’ contrition after the fact.

The Corbin Public Library Board was contrite following an attorney general’s ruling that the board violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act by the way it conducted several of its meetings in 2015 and 2016.

It should have been, considering it failed to give notice of special board and committee meetings, chronicle and approve minutes of its meetings or observe the requirements for entering closed sessions, all while conducting meetings in a locked building.

Yes, locked.

Oftentimes, such violations occur because boards or agencies know their decisions will be unpopular with the taxpaying public.

Library boards in some parts of the commonwealth have acted brashly in recent years, especially when it comes to squeezing taxpayers to fund elaborate, unneeded and expensive building projects.

But the Open Meetings Act — the law since 1974 — requires that if you’re going to raid taxpayers’ wallets, you can’t do it behind pulled blinds and locked doors.

What makes the Corbin library board’s remorse somewhat hollow is that members knew — or at least had numerous opportunities to get training in — the law, yet chose to ignore it and those chances, adding weight to the assertion of transparency experts that Kentucky’s sunshine laws are light on penalties.

Even though attorneys general rulings in cases involving the Open Meetings and Open Records acts — the latter established in 1976 — carry the force of law, they’re missing a matching set of teeth.

Agencies can ignore it, say “sorry” when confronted with violations and suffer no real penalties unless the whole matter ends up in a courtroom.

This does little to force government entities to seriously consider the law when deciding where, how and when to meet and what public business to consider, and doesn’t deter future shenanigans.

Some agencies when called on their violations don’t even bother with “sorry.”

When the Bluegrass Institute in 2015 prevailed in a legal challenge to the Kentucky Board of Education involving a committee tasked with finding an executive headhunting agency to lead the search for a new commissioner that wrongly conducted its meetings by telephone, not only were there no penalties involved, board members at that time attempted to downplay the attorney general’s ruling and the wrongness of their own actions.

They stubbornly refused to even consider implementing the institute’s proposed, reasonable and cost-free remedy: open meetings training for its members by a representative of the attorney general’s office.

Still, progress is being made.

Instructions were given to board members recently appointed to the KBE board on their first day in office regarding their responsibilities involving open meetings and records.

Once citizens become more aware of the importance of and engaged in defending, enforcing and strengthening the sunshine laws, “sorry” will no longer be sufficient.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.