A private company that operates on public money should be subject to public scrutiny.
Kentucky's lawmakers recognized this when they enacted the Open Records Act, and Attorney General Jack Conway recently confirmed the law means what it says.
But, despite the Sept. 14 opinion, a company that's paid $11.6 million a year to run publicly owned water and sewer systems in Pike County still insists it is entitled to feast at the public trough in private. (Wonder if there's candlelight and soft music?)
Both the Pike County Fiscal Court, made up of local elected representatives, and state Auditor Crit Luallen have been trying to figure out just how much this cozy arrangement is harming ratepayers and the public interest.
They've been thwarted by Utility Management Group's refusal to open its records.
What is publicly known more than justifies the curiosity.
The Mountain Water District, a public entity in Pike County, approved a contract with politically connected UMG in 2005 without any true public debate and after a very persuasive presentation by the water district's superintendent, who, in an interesting coincidence, went on to become UMG's part owner.
An audit completed earlier this year found the water district is paying UMG costly management fees. This concerns local officials because the water district was on sound financial footing before, but it has struggled since UMG took over.
Rate increases go from the water district and city of Pikeville to UMG without scrutiny by the Public Service Commission.
The audit also turned up no-bid contracts with state Rep. Keith Hall's electrical company. The contracts were just small enough to avoid competitive bidding requirements.
In other words, a lot of public money is being spent with little to no public accountability. These concerns and others prompted the Pike Fiscal Court to request from UMG copies of it expenses and checks.
The AG ruled the company must turn over the documents. The opinion cited a provision that says entities deriving at least 25 percent of the money they expend in Kentucky from "local or state authority funds" are subject to the Open Records Act.
An attorney for UMG says the private company should not be subject to the Open Records Act and that it will challenge Conway's opinion on constitutional grounds.
Such a challenge would have significance beyond Pike County because the state and many local governments have privatized various services. Several state audits have been hampered by contractors' refusal to provide financial records.
A victory for UMG could prove dubious for the privatization movement, however, if governments, denied information they need to make informed decision, decide privatization has become too risky.
Whether it's feeding prisoners or running a publicly owned utility, when private companies are hired to perform government functions, the public needs to be able to find out if it's getting its money's worth.