RICHMOND — Madison Circuit Judge William G. Clouse Jr. ruled Tuesday that Eastern Kentucky University must release the majority of documents the Herald-Leader is seeking related to the departure last June of EKU Center for the Arts director Debra Hoskins.
The university and Hoskins have 14 days to appeal the ruling or produce the documents.
After the hearing Tuesday morning, in which attorneys for EKU, Hoskins and the Herald-Leader went through the contested documents, attorneys for the university and Hoskins said they had not decided whether they would appeal the rulings.
Hoskins was present at the hearing but did not speak.
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Included in the documents was a June 12 letter from Skip Daugherty, executive assistant to EKU President Doug Whitlock, listing reasons the university was moving to fire Hoskins.
"If you read that letter, clearly and plainly the intent was Mr. Daugherty was saying to Ms. Hoskins, 'We're going to fire you, but if you want, you can choose this other action,'" Clouse said. "To my mind, that was final.
"These other letters may be a series of final actions that supplement this final action. This is the one letter, the one place I can find that clearly takes the administration view on the grounds for releasing Ms. Hoskins."
EKU's attempt to dismiss Hoskins was blocked by the Center for the Arts' community operations board, which said only the board had authority to terminate the director's employment. Hoskins resigned shortly after EKU's attempt to fire her.
Hoskins and attorneys for EKU said the letter was superseded by Hoskins' resignation, but Clouse said, "This is what the public record is all about."
The Herald-Leader sought a variety of documents relating to Hoskins' tenure in managing the brand-new, $33 million publicly financed arts center. The university produced a portion of the documents, primarily financial in nature, but withheld many others, citing a confidentiality agreement with Hoskins.
In October, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway's office ruled that confidentiality agreements do not trump the open-records laws, and EKU initially said it would release the documents. University officials reversed themselves shortly after that, saying the agreement compelled the university to fight any disclosure of the documents.
In Tuesday's hearing, the university and Hoskins' attorney reasserted their contentions that disclosure of the documents would constitute unwarranted invasions of Hoskins' and others' privacy.
Clouse, however, said, "Being embarrassed is not grounds enough" to withhold records covered under the open records laws.
"The court's feeling is the public has a right to confidence in its institutions and the people that make decisions," Clouse said. "This type of document, while it may be embarrassing for your client, is important for the public to gain that confidence in their institution — to understand what happened."
The attorneys agreed that when records are released, names of students and lower-level employees and any revealing information about them would be redacted. But the names of a "whistleblower" and decision makers, including board members, executive staff and university officials, would not be struck.
In March, the university and Hoskins released a number of documents that revealed pervasive concerns about Hoskins' management of the center, including mishandling of customer credit card information and misuse of information from her previous employer, Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
Hoskins has disputed many of the accusations in the documents, including deliberate underpayment of artists.
In Tuesday's hearing, Clouse and the attorneys agreed that several documents being sought were favorable to Hoskins.
The court ruled in the Herald-Leader's favor on the majority of the documents, but Clouse decided against the Herald-Leader's assertion that EKU had not acted in good faith regarding the Open Records Act in crafting its agreement with Hoskins.
"Eastern has made every effort today to be understanding of the court's rulings," Clouse said.
He said the crux of the argument was whether the resignation or attempted termination of Hoskins was the "final action," and although he determined that it was the attempted termination, he said, "Eastern took a position it thought was well-founded in the law, and I cannot find that they acted in bad faith."