Open-government laws at risk in Kentucky Senate

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer’s attempt to usher in government by text message was short-lived.

Just a few hours after this newspaper and other media reported Thayer’s attempt to gut Kentucky’ open-government laws, the measure was pulled from its glide path on the Senate’s consent calendar. Senate President Robert Stivers said he would work with the Kentucky Press Association and others to protect transparency in government.

Thayer’s amendment, which on Wednesday was attached to House Bill 302, would make Kentucky the only state where government business could be kept secret if it’s conducted on government officials’ private devices or private email accounts. Imagine: The Senate’s in-crowd could kick back in their jammies and make all the important decisions in a Google Hangout, far from the prying eyes of nosy constituents and taxpayers.

The amendment, which was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee, was attached to an innocuous housecleaning-type bill that was set to glide through without debate.

It says that emails, texts or calls on devices paid for with private funds and which do not involve government email accounts are not “public records” as defined in the Open Records Act. It would be like saying the school board or city council can hold secret meetings as long as they’re at someone’s private home.

Thayer said he was only trying to codify an attorney general’s opinion issued by Jack Conway on his last day as AG. But a bad AG’s opinion makes even worse law. The opinion has never been tested in court, where it almost certainly would be deemed a violation of Kentucky’s open-government laws.

Thayer’s move makes it clear that, if anything, the legislature should specify that open records and meetings laws cover all public business, even when it’s conducted via private devices or email accounts.

This editorial was updated from its original version to reflect new developments.