Eastern Kentucky University is preparing to cut up to $25 million from its next two-year budget, a move that is expected to bring program and personnel cuts that have not yet been made public.
So several faculty were alarmed Monday when the EKU Board of Regents met behind closed doors for five hours, according to the Richmond Register. An agenda for the specially-called meeting said the secret session was to discuss “litigation and/or discipline or dismissal of an individual employee.”
The regents went behind closed doors shortly after 10 a.m. and emerged around 3:15 p.m., according to the newspaper. Officials said no action was taken.
Public agencies are allowed to discuss specific litigation and personnel issues under the Kentucky Open Meetings Act, but the length of the session raised questions about whether trustees used the time to discuss something other than a specific lawsuit or the discipline of a specific employee.
“I don’t understand what could take five hours,” said Matthew Winslow, chairman of the EKU Faculty Senate. “I was on the budget advisory committee, which made suggestions about the budget to the president that included some personnel changes, but I personally don’t understand why they would have to discuss the personnel changes I’m aware of for five hours.”
The faculty senate’s vice chairman, Marco Ciocca, said faculty have been given no answers about the meeting, which was also used to swear in new regent Laura Babbage.
“We can’t say one thing or another,” Ciocca said. “Everyone is on edge and one has to ask: ‘What’s going on?’ If it was a question about a lawsuit, it’s a little strange it took that long, given what’s coming.”
EKU officials did not respond to questions about the substance of the meeting’s discussion.
General Counsel Dana Fohl said in an email: “The EKU Board of Regents Executive Session on March 19, 2018 was to discuss possible litigation and employee(s) dismissal, as indicated on the meeting notice and motion to enter closed session. No board action was taken during the executive session, and this was announced when the board returned to open session.”
Fohl said the board did not hold a policy discussion, but referred any further questions to Board of Regents Chairman Craig Turner, who did not return calls seeking comment.
First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker said public agencies sometimes get confused about what they can and can’t discuss behind closed doors.
“The personnel exemption has to be about an individual situation,” he said. “If they are talking about policy that affects personnel, that is not an exemption. That has to be dealt with in open session.”
Faculty member John Fitch said employees have had concerns about the board’s transparency in the past, including holding meetings in attorneys’ offices in Lexington, making it hard for EKU employees to attend.
“For them to expect us to believe they talked about a single case of an employee for five hours in a special meeting ... well, it doesn’t seem likely,” he said. “I don’t have proof they talked about other things, but I’m sure it would have been tempting to talk about program cuts and policy.”