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A troubling trend is emerging from city and county government officials of increased difficulty and decreased transparency for citizens to voice concerns and request information from their local government. That is unsettling to us here at The Spencer Magnet.
For those who might not be aware, both the Taylorsville City Commission and the Spencer County Fiscal Court have taken steps to change the way they accept public comments. Several months ago, the commission began requiring that citizens desiring to address the commission make their requests known by noon on the Friday before the Tuesday meeting.
Just less than two weeks ago, Judge Executive Bill Karrer declared that citizen comments would only be accepted if the comments specifically related to an item on the agenda. Citizens also are under a three-minute time constraint when they address the court. While we applaud the judge for trying to keep the court on task and to stop those who wish to publicly berate and belittle our public officials, there are some valid and deep concerns about the policies at both the city and county levels.
While we recognize that Kentucky law does not stipulate that fiscal courts, commissions, councils or other forms of local government recognize public comments during regularly scheduled meetings, it seems that our local government entities would want to provide as much transparency and opportunity for citizens to communicate and participate as possible.
It is also important to note that the county has recently produced a form to be used for those requesting open records. While this might be helpful and could possibly speed up the process of accessing records, we would like to point out that neither the county, nor any other government entity in Kentucky, for that matter, can require that a person use a certain form when requesting records. The statute merely states that the custodian of records may require written application, signed by the applicant and with his name printed legibly on the application, describing the records to be inspected.
According to the statute, the application shall be hand delivered, mailed, or sent via facsimile to the public agency. Nowhere does it state that a specific type of application must be used. If you meet the above requirements when submitting your open records request, you are within the law.
There has been much speculation that the changes to all these policies have been in response to the zealous and perhaps, at times, distasteful actions of one citizen — Lawrence Trageser. No one at The Spencer Magnet can prove that, and we don’t want this editorial to be about him. Rather, we are concerned that these latest measures to make public comment as calculated as possible might have a chilling effect on the thousands of other citizens who may wish to address the commission and court at some point.
Let’s be honest. Someone having a problem with a storm drain, a zoning issue, or someone wishing to challenge an ordinance is probably not going to know the local government’s policies on public comment. Most citizens show up at these meetings hoping to be heard. It is a shame to turn them away if they wish to discuss valid issues. The commission and the court always have the option to call someone out of order and ask him or her to sit down if the dialogue gets out of hand.
The point we are trying to make is that transparency and constituents’ concerns should always be a top priority for local, state and national government. While there can and probably should be policies in place for accepting comment and requesting open records, it is important that those policies do not smite concerned citizens showing up at meetings just wanting their concerns heard.
For every one negative comment heard by local officials, there are probably 10 positive ones that go unheard. The county’s new policy of only allowing speakers to address items on the agenda not only silences concerned citizens, it also silences those who might want to say thank you for a job well done. We cannot imagine that anyone wants to miss out on that.
Open government. The people want it. Public officials should want it, too. There is nothing wrong with going beyond the law’s requirements to keep the operations of local government in the open.