Herald-Leader Editorial

UK trustees should vet budget in public; closed door out of line

June 15, 2014 

We'll stipulate a few things about conducting business in public:

It can be messy.

It can be confusing.

It can be exhausting.

For example, Lexington's Urban County Council met for seven hours in one session last week hammering out the details of the city's $313 million budget.

The University of Kentucky board of trustees and top administrators understandably wanted to spare themselves these inconveniences while considering the flagship university's $3 billion budget.

But, UK is a public institution, receiving public funds, charged with educating Kentucky's citizens. Despite the messy, confusing and exhausting business of examining that huge budget in public, that's where it has to happen.

And it's the law.

When the trustees voted on the budget Tuesday, there were no questions, discussion or debate — only a unanimous vote to approve what the administration presented.

This dumb show of unity is possible because the budget is shown to trustees and discussed in several less-than-quorum groups that are closed to public view, as Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford reported last week. By the time the entire board meets in public, there are no questions left.

Attorneys knowledgeable in Kentucky open-meetings law say the practice likely violates the law. "When matters are discussed in a series of meetings in private, there is no transparency," Jon Fleischaker, who helped craft the law, told Blackford.

Black-box budgeting also diminishes public support. It's hard to rally behind a closed door, to advocate for what's not understood.

UK is not alone in this practice nor is it new to the administration of President Eli Capilouto. But Capilouto could strike an important blow for transparency by urging the board to change its ways. Gov. Steve Beshear, who appoints the board and has two positions to fill this month, should also make commitment to openness a priority as he vets candidates.

The point isn't a "gotcha" about catching the board breaking the rules. The point is that UK belongs to the people of Kentucky, who pay taxes and tuition to support it, and they have a right to hear the discussions and debates about how UK will use those resources.

UK board chair Britt Brockman and spokesman Jay Blanton offered explanations that were both inadequate and condescending. Brockman essentially placed convenience for highly paid administrators over the public's right to know. The closed-door meetings allow board members "to ask questions rather than disrupting an administrator with 20 phone calls," he said.

Blanton said they give administrators a chance "to educate the (board) members on specific issues .... we must provide the information and context trustees need so that they can do what is an increasingly complex job."

Fine, but why can't the rest of us be educated, too?

The undiscussed budget includes a five-percent tuition increase for the fall. But Jim Stuckert, the trustee who chairs the finance committee (which also didn't ask any questions) told Blackford: "What is a board member or committee member supposed to ask about tuition?"

No doubt young Kentuckians graduating with a mountain of debt, and their families, could think of a few questions.

It's time to open the doors and let the public in.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service