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Transparency training bill is a good start, but it could be even better

By AMYE BENSENHAVER

Guest columnist

A bit of good news: Sen. Rick Girdler (R-Somerset) introduced Senate Bill 162 on Feb. 11. If enacted, the bill will require all newly elected mayors and members of a city’s legislative body to receive three hours of training ‘related to his or her powers, duties, and responsibilities as an elected city official’ within their first year of holding office.”

The bill was assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee on February 13 and received its first and second reading and was sent to the Rules Committee in early March.

As Advocate-Messenger Editor Ben Kleppinger wrote in a recent article, a path to passage remains open.

We strongly support new laws aimed at promoting compliance with Kentucky’s open government laws, but urge a more comprehensive approach to the subject aimed at a broader audience and employing technology to reach that audience.

At least twice in the past, lawmakers have singled out groups of public officials for open records and meetings training.

As Kleppinger reported, in 2005 Rep. Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort) successfully shepherded an open records, records management and open meetings training bill through the General Assembly.

Although Rep. Graham’s bill did not address the clear need for training at the state agency level, it targeted all counties, cities, schools and universities. It mandated distribution of written materials — prepared by the Office of the Attorney General and Kentucky Department for Librarians and Archives — about the laws to all elected and appointed officials within these governmental units when there is a change in the open records or meetings law.

In 2016, Rep. Graham was back as the sponsor of a law mandating six hours of training for new governing board members of the Council on Postsecondary Education, public universities and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System within one year of a new members’ appointment.

Among several other topics, that training features ”legal considerations including open records and open meetings requirements.” Based on the number of topics covered, it appears only thirty minutes, or so, is dedicated to open government laws. Ideally, this would include a records management component.

The training required under Rep. Girdler’s current bill, SB 162, includes open meetings and open records laws as one of five subjects in a three hour training session. It would be offered by the Kentucky League of Cities to afford city officials the same training opportunities offered to county officials by the Kentucky Association of Counties.

That’s approximately 30 minutes for both laws with no discussion of the officials’ records management duties. It’s a start. And — especially when coupled with a close reading of “Your Duty Under the Law” and “Managing Government Records” — a good start.

But why stop there?

Why, for example, limit training to new officials? Every public servant can use a “booster shot.” The statutes are frequently amended. New cases are regularly issued, providing officials with critical guidance in interpretation and application of the law. Updates are clearly warranted.

Why limit training to specific governmental units and only officials at the highest levels? Training for public servants should be inclusive and mandatory. Open records and records management laws govern the conduct of all who serve.

Why trust that approximately 30 minutes is sufficient to explain the laws? In my fairly extensive experience, 90 minutes is optimum, with an additional 30 minutes for records management training. 

A PowerPoint developed and refined over time, “The Ten Most Common Open Meetings and Open Records Mistakes,” distills the essentials of each law into digestible bites. It requires no less than 60 minutes.

And, perhaps most important, why begin with an apology? Too often, in-house trainers frame their discussions of the laws as a necessary evil. Public servants should be encouraged to appreciate the value and importance of the law, and the strong presumption in favor of openness.

Kentucky’s resources limit our ability to provide training sessions like those offered in other states, which I read about with envy.

As an alternative, we can use technology to our advantage by developing training modules like those regularly used in state government, as of my departure in 2016, to promote understanding of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, performance evaluations, and heath assessment — all mandatory — not in lieu of, but in addition to opportunities for in-house training.

Kentucky’s laws securing the public’s right to know are basic tools in conducting the public’s business. They are at least as important as any of these subjects except, perhaps, the last.

In the final analysis, the minimal cost of developing a universal open records, records management, open meetings training module for all state and local officials and employees, along with needed updates, would be money well spent.

Unless, that is, Kentucky’s officials are content with merely paying lip service to our open government laws.

 

Amye Bensenhaver is a retired assistant attorney general and co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.