Fayette County

He wanted info on Lexington’s surveillance cameras. Now the city is suing him.

Surveillance cameras in Berry Hill Skatepark in Lexington. A sign at the entrance states that video cameras are in use.
Surveillance cameras in Berry Hill Skatepark in Lexington. A sign at the entrance states that video cameras are in use. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The American Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday that it will represent a community activist who is being sued by the city of Lexington to stop the release of documents about 29 surveillance cameras owned and operated by the Lexington Police Department.

Michael Maharrey, an activist who has started an organization called “We See You Watching Lexington,” asked for documents related to the city’s operation of 29 surveillance cameras and other surveillance equipment. The city of Lexington denied part of Maharrey’s July 17 request for information. The city disclosed the existence of 29 surveillance cameras it operated and said some of the information that Maharrey requested didn’t exist.

The city also provided Maharrey more than 400 pages of documents, including information about body cameras used by the police Department.

City officials also said that some documents Maharrey requested couldn’t be released because records regarding investigative reports and issues dealing with homeland security don’t have to be made public under the state’s Open Records Act.

Last month, Attorney General Andy Beshear issued an opinion saying that the city wrongly denied Maharrey’s request and ordered the city to turn over all documents related to the 29 surveillance cameras.

The city sued Maharrey on Sept. 29 in Fayette Circuit Court to stop the release of the documents. In its lawsuit, the city said it had disclosed some information about the cameras after the Sept. 8 attorney general opinion but redacted some of it, because the release of the information would be “an officer safety issue and decrease in effectiveness of an investigation.”

In its response, the ACLU wants the judge to make the city produce the documents and to rule that the city has willfully withheld those records. In addition, the ACLU wants the city to pay all attorney fees and court costs.

“One of the fundamental principles of our government is transparency. The public has a right to know the actions of government officials and disseminate that information to others,” said Heather Gatnarek, an attorney for the ACLU of Kentucky.” City officials appear to be shirking their responsibility to provide records they are obligated to provide by law, simply because they don’t want the public to have access to them.”

Maharrey started “We See You Watching Lexington” after the city installed video cameras at Berry Hill Park last summer as part of a pilot project. Berry Hill’s cameras are not part of the current lawsuit. Maharrey’s request to the city didn’t ask for surveillance videos from Berry Hill Park.

Maharrey said the open records request was an attempt to learn more about how the city uses surveillance and whether there are checks and balances.

“This lawsuit underscores the need for transparency and oversight when it comes to government surveillance in Lexington.” Maharrey said. “The police clearly want to keep their surveillance programs hidden. We need to push for structural changes that will force government agencies in Fayette County to operate transparently.”

Maharrey said he wants a local ordinance that would outline how surveillance can be used and would take the “first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies” that violate basic privacy rights, he said in a written statement.

Lexington city officials didn’t immediately respond to request for comment. As a policy, the city doesn’t typically comment on lawsuits.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall