A bill that would clarify Kentucky’s existing open meetings laws has been introduced in the General Assembly by state rep. Jill York, R-Grayson.
House Bill 392 amends KRS 61.820 to add language specifically requiring all public agencies in the state to take steps to ensure adequate space, seating capacity and acoustics when choosing a location for public meetings.
Experts say this is already the intent of the law, but the proposed amendment would state it simply in the language of the law.
“There are some statutes that are just vague enough to allow some bad acts,” explained York last week.
The proposed amendment follows a string of ongoing open meeting complaints and recent lawsuits against Carter County Fiscal Court officials, who are in York’s district. The court meets on the second floor of the old courthouse in the former district courtroom. It’s long and narrow with church pew style seating. During one meeting in 2012, one of the pews broke under the weight of seated attendees.
Half of the county’s magistrates are often seated with their backs to audience members, making it difficult to hear. In the past, the court also attempted to ban cameras and audio and video recording equipment from meetings. However, officials later hired a videographer to tape all meetings of the fiscal court.
The amendment would add “In considering locations for public meetings, the agency shall evaluate space requirements, seating capacity, and acoustics,” to Section 1 of the existing law. It currently reads “All meetings of all public agencies of this state, and any committees or subcommittees thereof, shall be held at specified times and places which are convenient to the public.”
The clause “including adequate space, seating and acoustics” would also be added to the second sentence of the law’s Section 2. It would read “All agencies shall provide meeting room conditions, including adequate space, seating, and acoustics, which insofar as is feasible allow effective public observation of the public meeting.”
The measure has the support of Kentucky Press Association and other open government advocates. They believe, however, the measure is unlikely to make it through both houses this sessions due to the short time left in the 30-day session.
“My thoughts are that most public agencies already take care to have adequate space and facilities,” said Jon Fleischaker, a partner and chairman of the communications and media law practice group at Dinsmore and Sholh in Louisville and longtime KPA general counsel. “This won’t affect most agencies but the ones that are trying to avoid effectively opening their meetings this is worthwhile.” Fleischaker called it a “good amendment. “Open meetings don’t mean anything if you cant hear anything or you can’t get into the room,” he said, adding, “People have a right to hear and see what is going on.”
“It’s a pretty basic amendment to the law, and it’s unfortunate that it needs to go that far,” said David Thompson, executive director of the KPA. “Technically, that’s what it already says but sometimes you have to put things down in black and white so people can understand them.”
Thompson said he met with York before she wrote the amendment to discuss the issues in her district and to pledge their support for the measure, if needed.
He echoed Fleischacker saying, “It really is what the law already says. In our interpretation, convenient to the public would incorporate all that stuff.”
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2653.