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On Jan. 23, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway determined that the Taylorsville City Commission recently was in violation of the state’s Open Meetings law “by failing to make adequate provision for the convenience of the public during a closed session.”
The decision was the result of a complaint filed by resident Lawrence Trageser, who petitioned the commission after it’s Dec. 3 meeting to change the way it runs legal closed sessions of its public meetings.
Trageser has suggested the commission convene its executive sessions to a backroom of the annex, or across the parking lot at City Hall, to allow members of the public attending to remain inside in the meeting room until the regular session reconvenes.
We agree with Conway’s decision. Being members of the press, whose job it is to cover these meetings, we believe it is crucial to allow the public – and the media – to remain indoors during these sessions, particularly in times of inclement weather. These closed sessions can last a few minutes or go on for hours, therefore a comfortable place to sit, plus access to restrooms or water fountains, is not too much to require from the city.
At the Jan. 7 meeting, for instance, Publisher Lynette Mason was forced to wait for the closed session that night in her car with the engine running because the temperature that night was near zero. It actually was below zero with the wind chill factor.
It was perplexing, to say the least, to read the city’s Dec. 17 response to Trageser’s initial complaint, in which Clerk Steve Biven stated his belief that for 20 years, the city has “provided adequate facilities” for the public during open meetings. He seemed unconcerned about the protocol during closed sessions.
“The observed public practice for those in attendance during these last 20 years is that there is little or no interest in waiting around to hear the motions of the Commission, if indeed any action is taken at all,” Bevin wrote. “The public has been comfortable with the current arrangement, which had apparently accommodated their need to smoke, speak loudly, drive around in their cars, leave or remain outside. Even the local newspaper prefers sometimes to leave and have city staff advise them on the actions of the Commission.”
And there’s the rub.
The news staff here at the Spencer Magnet has remained on site, waiting with members of the public in the parking lot for the open meetings of the City Commission to reconvene, for at least the past three years. Prior to that, it was imperative for news staff to leave the meetings early because of the newspaper’s 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline. At that time, city meetings convened at 4:30 p.m., so the reporter was required to return to the office before the meetings ended.
Since about 2010, the newspaper’s deadline is considerably earlier – 2 p.m. every Tuesday. Staff members cannot recall the last time the person covering the meeting left during a closed session and did not return for the open session and adjournment.
But even if this weren’t the case, even if the news staff didn’t return, Bevin completely misses the point – and the spirit – of the law.
It doesn’t matter who stays for the rest of the city meetings. It doesn’t matter if no one ever stays through the executive session.
The law is clear: The commission must reconvene an open session, especially if it intends to vote on an issue discussed during closed session. Even without an intention to take action, the commission must, by law, reopen the meeting to adjourn. This ensures that any action or subsequent discussion is included in the minutes for that meeting.
The point of the law is transparency. All public business must be done in public, whether or not the public – or the media – is there to witness this.
City Attorney John Dale Jr. is correct that the AG’s decision is not law. But it is a legal interpretation of the state law, therefore it is our hope that the city commission will find a way to accommodate the public and not force anyone to endure the elements simply for the convenience of city officials, themselves.
Note: Unsigned editorials represent the collective opinion of our editorial board, made up of Publisher Lynette Mason and Staff Writer Mallory Bilger.