An opinion last week by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in a Pike County dispute provides a refresher on one of our country's founding principles: Knowledge is power, and a free people must have access to government's inner workings.
You don't have to read deep between the lines of the ruling to start wondering: Why did the General Assembly in 2012 bar the public from knowing how its money is spent when governments choose to provide public services through private companies?
The legislative shenanigans were outside the appeals panel's purview. But we can fill in a few details.
The Mountain Water District in Pike County pays UMG, a politically connected company, millions of dollars to manage the public waterworks. Leonard Lawson, long a major contributor to political campaigns, was a founder of UMG, which also has a contract with Pikeville to provide water, sewer, garbage, street services and park maintenance.
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As enacted in 1976, the Open Records Act applied to government agencies, obviously, but also to companies that derive at least 25 percent of their spending in Kentucky from state or local authority funds.
UMG derives almost all of its revenue from local authorities, so its dealings with the Mountain Water District were open records.
But UMG refused to turn over expenditure records to Pike County officials, in defiance of an attorney general's opinion that the records were public.
UMG also refused to turn over records to the state auditor. Even without the records, an audit turned up enough conflicts of interest, noncompetitive contracts and questionable fees to raise concerns that ratepayers were being cheated.
In 2013, Pike Circuit Special Judge John David Caudill cited the newly rewritten law and ruled that UMG could keep its books closed. Caudill ruled that the Open Records Act was never meant to cover private contractors and that the legislature's action in 2012 merely clarified the law's original intent.
The rewrite of the law shielded the records if government contracts are awarded through competitive bidding.
The appeals panel — Judges Allison Jones, Joy A. Kramer and Irv Maze — overturned Caudill's ruling, saying that the legislature's action in 2012 was a substantive change, not a clarification, of a provision that had been enforced without problems for more than 35 years. The appeals court also ruled that the 2012 change in the law cannot be applied retroactively.
This case has implications far beyond Pike County as governments increasingly privatize public services.
The General Assembly should roll back the damage its favor to UMG inflicted on Kentuckians' right to know. Lawmakers should restore the Open Records Act to its original purpose even if, as the court said, public accountability is inconvenient or embarrassing for some.