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Word and spirit of open meetings law matter

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

Kentucky’s Open Meetings Act is an essential tool for making sure governments are accountable to the people they serve.

The law requires that “all meetings of a quorum of the members of any public agency at which any public business is discussed or at which any action is taken by the agency shall be public meetings, open to the public at all times,” with a small handful of carefully crafted exceptions.

That’s pretty straightforward, but a couple definitions can bring even more clarity:

• A “quorum” is the minimum number of people required for a public agency to take action — 1 more than 50 percent of the voting members.

• A “public agency” is every governmental body or board, such as the Boyle County Fiscal Court, the Danville City Commission, boards of education, even the Boyle County Public Library board. The term also includes all committees and groups formed by those governmental entities.

Our open meetings law also requires that the public be informed about all planned meetings in advance so they have the opportunity to attend.

In short: Any official government body must conduct its business in public, and the public must know when and where that government body is meeting.

The intent of this law seems obvious, but the writers also didn’t leave any doubt: The opening paragraph of the Open Meetings Act declares that “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

The letter and the spirit of the law are clear. Unfortunately, there can be no perfect law and humans will always be good at testing the boundaries and finding the gray areas.

One such gray area was on display this week in Boyle County, when two Boyle County magistrates attended a Solid Waste Committee meeting. The committee has two magistrates sitting on it — Jamey Gay and Ron Short. When magistrates Jason Cullen and Tom Ellis showed up as well, they created a problematic situation: There was now a quorum of Boyle County Fiscal Court members present.

No special meeting of the fiscal court had been called (such meetings require a minimum 24 hours advance notice). But merely being present in numbers representing a quorum doesn’t violate the law; for it to be violation, the quorum must also discuss public business or take action.

In this case, Ellis and Cullen apparently did bring up public business — the county’s convenience centers. But there is yet another wrinkle: This meeting of a quorum and discussion of public business did occur at a public meeting — it just wasn’t a public meeting of the fiscal court.

Members of the public had the opportunity to be present and hear what was discussed if they chose to. However, they could not have known that a quorum of magistrates would wind up having a discussion that should have happened at a fiscal court meeting.

This is where we must fall back on the spirit of the Open Meetings Act — “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

Was this discussion held in secret? Clearly not. Nor do we think it was anyone’s intention to hold secret discussions.

This incident was at worst a minor technical violation of the word of the law; it was not an attack on the spirit of the law.

It does raise some concerns because magistrates apparently did not realize fully the line they were close to crossing. If the discussions had actually led to a consensus or action taken in the future, it would have resulted in a far more blatant violation of the law.

But we think it’s clear from officials’ comments after the fact that they took the right lesson from this situation and will do better in the future at avoiding gray areas.