The Kentucky Horse Park Commission held an invitation-only meeting to talk about the park’s future Wednesday, initially refusing to allow a Herald-Leader reporter in the building and calling the Horse Park police to the scene.
The Kentucky Open Meetings Act requires the commission, which is a public entity appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, to notify and invite the public to its meetings, but no public notice was given before Wednesday’s meeting. More than 35 people attended, including at least 10 members of the 14-member commission.
About 30 minutes after the meeting began, the commission reversed course and allowed the reporter into the room.
“It’s a visioning session, that’s all I know,” Commissioner P.G. Peeples said before the meeting began.
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Asked if the entire commission had been invited, Peeples said, “I think so.”
Signs in the park directed attendees to a “visioning session” and a flyer handed out at the meeting outlined four questions for “creating a vision for the Kentucky Horse Park.”
When questioned by the Herald-Leader earlier in the day, Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet spokeswoman Laura Brooks said the meeting was being held to discuss a specific proposal in private.
“This is a private, internal business meeting,” Brooks said in an email beforehand. “If it were open to the public we would lose competitive advantage and it would negatively affect a specific business proposal.”
Brooks cited an exemption to the Kentucky Open Meetings Act that allows public boards to go into private sessions for “discussions between a public agency and a representative of a business entity and discussions concerning a specific proposal, if open discussions would jeopardize the siting, retention, expansion, or upgrading of the business.”
At the meeting, Brooks said the cabinet’s legal department “decided that this did not violate open meetings laws.”
“We just want to hold something so that stakeholders, which include commission members, can have something to talk about and everyone have input so we can make this the best facility possible ... It’s a get-together to discuss information and future endeavors. ... It’s supposed to be a positive meeting,” she said. “We wanted to get everyone together, and have some lunch, and talk about ideas.”
Brooks could not clarify why the two explanations for closing the meeting differed.
After learning of the secret meeting, the Herald-Leader objected to state officials.
Elizabeth Woodford, an attorney for the newspaper, said in an email to Leigh Powers, general counsel for the tourism cabinet, that the flyer “very clearly confirms that the meeting was never intended to hold discussions ‘between a public agency and a representative of a business entity and discussions concerning a specific proposal.’”
Tourism Secretary Don Parkinson said afterward of the Herald-Leader’s protest: “Our interpretation is different but we’re going to let other people worry about that. It was a very productive session today, a lot of good ideas. It was future business and that’s why we set it up the way we did. ... Now we’ve got to figure out how to process and what are the priorities to move forward.”
Late Wednesday night, Parkinson issued a statement that struck a different tone.
“We believe in an open and transparent government and we acknowledge that today's brainstorming session involving members of the Kentucky Horse Park Commission was not handled properly,” Parkinson said. “While today's meeting was intended to be an informal gathering where ideas could thrive, it was never intended to be an official meeting of the Kentucky Horse Park Commission.”
Commission member Larry Bisig of Louisville said the meeting was “all brainstorming, nothing but brainstorming. No policy being determined.”
Among the ideas thrown out included a long-discussed hotel for the park and ending the Rolex naming sponsorship of the park’s open-air stadium.
Commission members present included Bisig, Lisa Ball of Lexington, Richard Broadbent IV of Lexington, Nancy Cox of Lexington, William Ferko of Prospect, P.G. Peeples of Lexington, Becky Jordan of Georgetown, commission chairwoman Tandy Patrick of Louisville, Tourism Deputy Secretary Regina Stivers of Frankfort and Tourism Secretary Parkinson.
Non-commission attendees included several members of the separate non-profit Kentucky Horse Park Foundation board and some park staff, as well as former Tourism secretary and sports marketing executive Jim Host and U.S. Equestrian Federation president Murray Kessler.