A judge has ruled that 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 crisis.
The Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government, based in Lexington, challenged the private House meeting, arguing that the public should be allowed to watch whenever lawmakers collectively meet to conduct business. The attorney general — whose opinion carries the force of law on open meetings and open records — sided with the Bluegrass Institute last November.
House leaders appealed the attorney general's decision by suing in Franklin Circuit Court, but Judge Thomas Wingate ruled against them.
"The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret," Wingate wrote in his May 7 order.
The judge rejected the argument of House GOP leaders that the entire legislative body did not technically meet behind closed doors that day. Rather, House attorneys argued, 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, the attorneys said.
House leaders left open the possibility of a further appeal attempt in a brief statement issued Tuesday.
"Despite the ruling, the House Majority Caucus still believes that its decision was based on solid legal footing. We will make additional decisions in the near future," said House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, R-Prospect.
The Bluegrass Institute said it welcomed the judge's decision. As a remedy to the Open Meetings Act violation, the Bluegrass Institute has suggested the House pass a resolution pledging to never again meet privately, and that it release a written, audio or video record of its closed-door meeting.
“Only within the Frankfort bubble can politicians call a closed meeting which nearly the entire House attends, claim it was a political caucus session, discuss the most important public policy issue of the day and expect the citizens or judiciary to go along with such nonsense,” Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters said.
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, lawmakers told reporters they had 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, they 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.
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.