Magistrates land in ‘gray area’ of open meetings law

Published 8:21 pm Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Boyle County Fiscal Court hasn’t entered into its annual budgetary talks yet. However, a rumor has already begun to circulate that the county may once again consider closing the Mitchellsburg Convenience Center.

Although unfounded, the rumor apparently led three residents of western Boyle County to be present at the county’s Solid Waste Committee meeting, held Tuesday morning. The committee is made up of magistrates Jamey Gay and Ron Short and Solid Waste Coordinator Angie Muncy.

Two other sitting magistrates, Jason Cullen and Tom Ellis, also attended the meeting, technically creating a quorum of members of the fiscal court. Quorums are the minimum number of members of a public body required to take action — one more than 50 percent.

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On Wednesday, Ellis said “three of my constituents” were at the meeting because “there were implications that there would be discussions about closing” the Mitchellsburg center.

The item was not listed on the agenda, and Muncy said it was the first she had heard of the rumor.

“Correct, it was not on the agenda,” Ellis said, and said he saw the agenda for the first time when he arrived at the meeting. “But I do listen to rumors … I learned to do that from my time in Frankfort. I’m prepared for just about anything, but I was happy when I saw the agenda.”

Ellis said he did not participate in discussing business during the meeting.

“The only thing I offered up to the committee was a point I made about pallets being mentioned. Instead of the cost to move those and ship them somewhere … there’s a line item cost where they’re loaded onto a truck, but I don’t know exactly what it is — and I suggested the pallets be given away,” Ellis said.

But he later learned from Muncy that pallets aren’t located at all five center sites, “So that’s not even a big issue,” he said.

Cullen said he attended the meeting “as a magistrate, because I want to be involved” wherever he can. He serves on the fiscal court’s finance committee with Magistrate Gay.

Cullen said closing the Mitchellsburg center was not brought up, but he did share cost-saving ideas.

“I did have some ideas about shortening days or hours” at all of the convenience centers, he said. But he said he is not “looking to shut anything down, just ways to look at how we can be better with our money.”

“I’m not demanding anything, but we’ve got four convenience centers in western Boyle County, plus one here (Gose Pike),” Cullen said. “Is there a need for all four? Do we need to consolidate programs?”

Later on Wednesday, Cullen said he attended the meeting for research purposes due to upcoming budget meetings and did not intend to get involved with the business discussed.

“I definitely wasn’t there to sway any opinions, offer recommendations or ask for any action, I am gathering information,” he said. The floor was opened for comments and questions, he said, and he also expressed his concerns, as a citizen, over illegal dumping in the Buster Pike area.

Ellis said that after he had a conversation with Treasurer Mary Conley and Judge-Executive Howard Hunt Wednesday, he now realizes it was the wrong place and time to attempt these discussions.

“Mary suggested we would all be well served to only have these kinds of discussions once we go into the budget process, and that we really don’t need to be having these separate conversations.”

Michael Abate, with the law firm Kaplan, Johnson, Abate and Bird, represents the Kentucky Press Association. He said the presence of a fiscal court quorum is troubling, but due to it happening during a committee meeting open to the public, the incident lands in a gray area when it comes to open meetings law.

“It’s a potentially troubling situation where it sounds like some of the magistrates may have come close to the line of the meeting violations,” Abate said. It’s not illegal for magistrates to attend a committee meeting, however when they become involved in the business at hand, he said it’s either on the line, or perhaps even “slightly over it.”

“If they had reached a consensus on actions to take in the future and did it outside of the context of a regularly scheduled meeting of the whole fiscal court body, that would be an issue,” he said. “We successfully litigated this in court for The Advocate-Messenger a few years ago (against the City of Danville). They cannot get together outside the context of an open, public meeting and reach consensus of what action to take,” Abate said.

Abate added that if magistrates are operating in compliance, “any subject that had even been touched on would have to be brought up and fully discussed at a regular meeting of the full body.”

Ellis said he also discussed the situation with Rich Ornstein, a staff attorney with Kentucky Association of Counties. He said he was concerned about other conversations had prior to the meeting that he was not present for that his constituent who came early to the meeting filled him in on.

“Ornstein conveyed to me that what went on there — since three magistrates were there — that was probably OK, since only three were there … so it’s a good thing I was late, actually,” Ellis said. “The attorney said it’s probably awkward; you had the two (magistrates who are) committee members, and I made sure to tell him Jason (Cullen) is a member of the finance committee … and in Mary’s (Conley) mind, it’s jumping ahead of the budget process.”

As far as Cullen bringing up the cost-saving ideas at the meeting, Ellis said, “I praise Jason; I feel the exact same way. He’s a fiscal conservative as I am, and we were exploring issues from a timing standpoint.”

“But there’s an orderly, appropriate process that we’ll be in very soon. From a legal standpoint, Ornstein said since there was an announced (committee) meeting, there is probably no offense there,” Ellis said.

Ellis returned the call for comment in between sessions Wednesday of a conference held by the Kentucky County Judge-Executives Association, held for magistrates and city council members. “I will use this as a lesson … That’s why we’re here today, at the Kentucky judge’s conference,” he said.

Ellis said magistrates are learning “all manner of appropriate actions in our respective elected offices … You need to learn and be extremely careful about what is an appropriate group that can meet without open meetings being subject to it.

“Believe me, it is a learning experience.”

In other business

Muncy reported to the committee that she is applying for the 2018-19 Recycling Grant and Hazardous Waste Grant through the state, but did not know the amount yet that could be obtained. “These are yearly grants we apply for,” she said.

Repair quotes were presented by Muncy that were received for the Forkland, Mitchellsburg and Gose Pike compactors. Due to a cylinder leakage on the compactor at Gose Pike, Muncy said she plans on getting the OK from fiscal court to repair this issue first.

Estimates received from Municipal Equipment Inc. showed repairs and replacements needed on the leaking cylinder ranging from $2,800 to $5,800; and possibly up to $3,000 for other repairs needed.

Muncy also presented the 2018 convenience center totals in an annual report to the committee. The following are the totals of solid waste taken in from each center, in tons:

• Perryville: 706.61

• Gose Pike: 2,343.78

• Alum Springs: 1,266.06

• Forkland: 119.02

• Mitchellsburg: 332.57

Also according to the report, the solid waste/recycling curbside pickup in Danville/Boyle County totaled 6,352.31 tons, and 257.52 tons from Perryville.

Total customers for 2018 were also calculated for each convenience center, based on vehicles passing through:

• Gose Pike: 71,926

• Alum Springs: 37,257

• Perryville, 28,271

• Mitchellsburg: 13,268

• Forkland, 3,473

There were 154,195 total customers using convenience centers in 2018, averaging 61.84 pounds of waste per customer.

For the Boyle County Recycling Center, slightly over 821 tons of recyclables were taken in 2018, according to the annual report.

“My workers are awesome,” Muncy said. “And I feel like those numbers prove that. I couldn’t have a better group of people.”

The next solid waste committee meeting will be planned for May.