The Kentucky House of Representatives violated the state’s Open Meetings Act with a closed-door conference in August where lawmakers from both parties huddled to discuss their plans to deal with the state’s pension shortfall, Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office announced Monday.
The Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government, based in Lexington, challenged the legality of the private House meeting, arguing that the public should be able to watch whenever the House conducts business. The attorney general — whose opinion carries the force of law on open meetings and open records issues — sided with the Bluegrass Institute.
“A quorum of the House was present,” Assistant Attorney General Matt James wrote. “In closing the meeting to the public without an authorized exception, the House violated the Open Meetings Act.”
In a response to the Bluegrass Institute’s appeal, House attorney Laura H. Hendrix said the entire legislative body did not technically meet that day. Rather, there was “a meeting of the House majority caucus, which was open to members of the House minority caucus,” and “both of these entities are specifically exempt” from the Open Meetings Act, Hendrix argued.
Although state law does allow the legislature’s individual political caucuses to meet privately, it’s a stretch to say they can meet privately together, said Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute. Once a majority of House members are present, that’s a House meeting, Waters said.
“They have no right to shut the people out of their discussions,” Waters said Monday. “The formation of public policy is just as important as what the final policy turns out to be. And it’s important to remember that the open meetings law is something the legislature has imposed on other public entities to follow.”
House members came to the state Capitol Annex on Aug. 29 at the invitation of then-House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, to discuss Kentucky’s massive public pension shortfall. Reporters and other members of the public were barred from the meeting.
Afterward, state representatives told reporters that they met with consultants hired by Gov. Matt Bevin and with state budget director John Chilton to talk about controversial recommendations the consultants recently had made. Among other things, the lawmakers discussed the possibility of raising public employees’ retirement ages, freezing the pensions of most state and local government employees and shifting future workers into 401(k)-style retirement accounts.
Some of those ideas, although not all, made their way into a draft pension bill that Bevin unveiled last month.
Only one lawmaker walked out of the pension meeting to protest the fact that it was conducted in secret — state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville.
“It’s not the right way to do things,” Wayne said, standing outside the House offices at the time. “We’ve seen under the leadership of Jeff Hoover that a number of opportunities for greater transparency have been basically kicked off the road. What you see here is another example of a lack of transparency. This government belongs to the people, to everyone in the commonwealth. And there should be an open, honest discussion about this issue.”
As a remedy to the Open Meetings Act violation, the Bluegrass Institute has suggested that the House pass a resolution pledging to never again meet privately, and to release a written record or audio or video recording of its closed-door meeting on Aug. 29. Waters said Monday that remedy still would satisfy his group.
The House has 30 days to accept the attorney general’s decision or appeal by filing a lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court. Tommy Druen, a spokesman for the House Republican majority, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank, launched its Center for Open Government earlier this year. Its director is Amye Bensenhaver, a longtime assistant attorney general who wrote hundreds of open records and open meetings opinions while she worked in state government.