Ethics commission’s most recent meeting sparks open meetings, open records questions

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By Shannon Brock

The Spencer County Ethics Commission met Monday morning, apparently to discuss a complaint filed against Judge-Executive Bill Karrer by Spencer Countian Lawrence Trageser.
Although the meeting primarily took place in executive session, Trageser told The Spencer Magnet he was asked to attend for an inquiry into a complaint he dated May 27 and addressed to Ethics Commission Chairman Dwight Greenwell.
Trageser provided The Magnet with a copy of the complaint before it was submitted to Greenwell, and confirmed after his meeting with the Ethics Commission on Monday morning that he was questioned regarding that complaint.
A public notice was posted on the Fiscal Court meeting room that the Ethics Commission would meet at 9 a.m. Monday. However, shortly after that meeting began, the reporter from The Magnet in attendance was asked to leave so that the commission could go into executive session.
Greenwell gave no reason for going into executive session, and no agenda for the meeting was provided, so it is unclear exactly what the commission intended to discuss.
However, before going into executive session, Greenwell introduced all parties present — himself, Ethics Commission members Rich Eschman and Guy Shelburne, County Attorney Ruth Hollan, Judge-Executive Bill Karrer, Magistrate Jerry Davis and Trageser.
Trageser’s complaint alleges that Karrer “has used his position as judge-executive for the purpose of removing a magistrate from his legally elected position, for political gain and retribution.”
Trageser claims that Karrer violated the Spencer County Ethics Code, section 3, subsections B and M.
Subsection B states, “No county government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his or her position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself/herself,” and M states, “No county government officer or employee shall use official authority, influence or coercion toward an official or employee of county government at any time for political activity or to effect a nomination or election result.”
The Spencer County Code of Ethics, Section 21(a) says that “All Spencer County Ethics proceedings and records with the exception of the adjudicatory hearing shall be confidential until a final determination is made by the Commission.”
However, questions arise as to the legality of conducting that business in executive session.
“Based on what I know, if they’re created by Fiscal Court, they’re [the Ethics Commission] a public agency,” said Caroline Pieroni, an attorney with Dinsmore and Shohl LLP, a Louisville law firm that specializes in media law and mans the Kentucky Press Association Freedom of Information Hotline.
And public agencies are subject to Kentucky’s open records and open meetings laws.
Some exemptions apply to “quasi-judicial bodies,” but based on information provided, Pieroni said she doesn’t think the inquiry and hearing part of the Ethics Commission’s complaint process qualify.
The three members of the commission would most likely be allowed to deliberate on an adjudicatory decision, but the hearings leading up to that deliberation should occur in public, Pieroni said.
The Spencer Magnet intends to file a complaint with the ethics commission chairman regarding several possible open meetings violations, including failure to provide 24-hour notice of a public meeting to the local media outlet, failure to produce an agenda for the special meeting and failure to state a reason for going into executive session.