Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

February 15, 2013

Price can be steep when goal is doing what is right

By KEITH PONDER
Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — “Always do the right thing.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I got it, I’m gone.”

Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’

-1989



Do the right thing.

That’s it.

All we expect from those whom we elect is to do the right thing. No expectation of greatness. No expectation of perfection. Just to do right.

When that doesn’t happen, it’s disappointing and discouraging. As a nation we’ve grown cynical expecting the best and seeing the worst in too many people we’ve entrusted with the mantle of elected office.

In county government the past few years, we’ve seen too much political gamesmanship and brinksmanship that has caused damage and destroyed opportunities to collaborate and work together as a community at a time when cooperation and trust means so much.

When the Barren County Fiscal Court voted Jan. 10, 2012, to hire Jefferson County private investigator Michael Ober, those voting in favor hit the low-water mark of direction. J. Edgar Hoover would have been proud of where our magistrates were heading — the rest of us, just embarrassed. Judge-Executive Davie Greer called it the worst decision the court ever made.  She was exactly right and she and Magistrate Billy Houchens were the only votes against hiring the PI.

Ober’s hiring was the first step in a long journey of failing to do the right thing. His verbal report and tap-dance aimed at skirting Kentucky’s open records law and the support the court lent to his ruse were two more steps away from doing the right thing. We said it was wrong then and were turned away when asking for a copy of the full report Ober claimed to summarize before the fiscal court May 1, 2012.

Attorney General Jack Conway affirmed our position that the report was a public document paid for with $3,500 of taxpayer money. Members of the fiscal court dug in their heels and said no again to the request for transparency and openness, this time voting unanimously.

Circuit Judge Phil Patton ruled in favor of the newspaper and told the court to produce the records. For the third time they said no and appealed Judge Patton’s ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, again, unanimously.

After the Attorney General’s opinion, when it was clear the fiscal court had no intention of doing business in public, we retained counsel — just as you might have as a taxpayer if you believed those who comprise the fiscal court didn’t do the right thing.

Following seven months of effort, conference calls, $12,000 of legal bills and a great deal of shoe leather expended by a bright, talented reporter, an agreement in principle emerged between attorneys for the county and the Daily Times. The matter needed to be closed and the report delivered to those who paid for that report. An agreement incidentally that is not yet complete because it must be put to a vote by the fiscal court.

As you reflect on the resources and focus taken from other matters I hope you will consider a couple of issues that we see as key:

— Why would the fiscal court cause an individual, a family farm, a business — or a newspaper — to work so hard for so long to keep something clearly public and open shielded from scrutiny? Especially when the decision was “the worst” decision that could have been made?

— Why in the world, if concerns existed about another constitutional office in the county, wouldn’t logical, typical (and free!) methods of investigation be pursued — namely the Kentucky State Police?

— What was the end-game for the magistrates who drove this process? What were their objectives? Judge Greer and Houchens were the only two who initially voted against this train wreck. What were Magistrates Steward, Dickerson, Spillman, Benningfield, Matthews and Gillon thinking? What were they trying to achieve?

In the coming weeks, Amanda Loviza Vickery will tell this complex story of Ober’s investigation. It’s a story that needs to be told, not for its sordid details but for the bigger picture issues like what is our fiscal court capable of doing? Capable of doing to another elected official? Capable of doing to another citizen, farmer or business?

Is this all a devious game in the name of political grandstanding that serves to advance the career of those who aspire to the next rung on the political ladder?

We were able and willing to fight this fight. We took every opportunity to resolve the appeal as quickly as possible to make sure the records for which we had worked for half a year saw the light of day before this fiscal court ended its term in 2014. For which we received one-fifth of our attorney’s fees and the report has been made available to those who paid for the work — the people of Barren County. That’s the way open records and open government are supposed to work. It’s supposed to be an open and transparent effort to do the right thing for our community.

That’s it. I got it.

Do you suppose they get it?

Keith Ponder is publisher for the Glasgow Daily Times. He can be contacted by e-mail at kwponder@cnhi.com.