Glasgow Daily Times
Our state’s and nation’s laws are sometimes difficult to decipher. Their legal sense often defies common sense understanding.
Take the plain language of Kentucky Revised Statute 61.815 (c) regarding open meetings: “No final action may be taken at a closed session ...”
It suggests there are no exceptions to public officials taking votes in closed session – they can not do so.
All public business must be conducted in open session, but there are three exceptions – discussion of personnel, specifically related to discipline; discussion of acquisition or sale of property; discussion of possible or pending litigation. Votes on actions on these topics are supposed to be taken when the public agency returns to its open session of a meeting.
The discussion of litigation can be a sticky issue because how is an elected body of officials, such as a fiscal court, to make a group decision without a show of hands, metaphorically speaking, which would be a vote.
On Jan. 15, all but one Barren County magistrate signed a sheet of paper provided to them by their attorney, Jim Deckard of Lexington, which was an agreement they would drop an ongoing appeal.
The legal argument is that was not a vote, but a part of litigation discussion and so, the public vote did not have to be taken when the members of the fiscal court returned to open session.
That may be a legally sound argument, but the fiscal court’s own precedent suggests they should have had to do an open session vote.
On July 10, the fiscal court went into closed session after being told by the office of Attorney General Jack Conway they had indeed violated open records law when they refused to turn over the records generated by an investigation of the local jail by private investigator Michael J. Ober. The Glasgow Daily Times had requested the records following Ober’s summary report before the fiscal court on May 1. They had their discussion of pending litigation behind closed doors, then returned to open session and let us all know they would appeal the AG’s ruling to Barren Circuit Court. Magistrate Chris Steward made a motion in open session to appeal the ruling and the motion passed unanimously.
After losing their argument in circuit court, the fiscal court went into closed session on Aug. 21 to discuss what would be their next step. County Attorney Jeff Sharp recused himself from the proceedings at that point and the fiscal court agreed to hire Deckard and agreed to appeal the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
They returned to open session and let us all know they had unanimously agreed to appeal the case.
So what was different a month ago? First, not all members of the fiscal court agreed they wanted to drop the appeal. They couldn’t return to open court and give a blanket vote of unanimous. One member would have been outed as opposing dropping the appeal, which certainly would have led to a litany of questions for them.
It did not take Daily Times reporter Amanda Loviza Vickery many phone calls to deduce who had not agreed with the decision to drop the appeal.
If the point of no open vote was to shield a magistrate from public scrutiny, that failed.
Perhaps they wanted to delay as long as possible their constituents asking this question: “A year of wasting taxpayer money was for what?”
If the point of no open vote was to shield the whole body of elected officials from public scrutiny, that failed as well.
Frankly, that failed the moment the fiscal court voted on Jan. 10, 2012, to hire PI Ober to investigate another public official in jailer Matt Mutter and how he managed the Barren County Detention Center. Only two members, Judge-Executive Davie Greer and magistrate Billy Houchens, voted against the action. Magistrates Carl Dickerson, Dr. Chris Steward, Ricky Spillman, John Benningfield, Gary Gillon and Tommy Matthews voted on that night more than a year ago to start the clock running on this fiasco that has been a complete waste of taxpayer money and cause many to wonder about the judgement and quality of leadership we are seeing.