FRANKFORT – Our state and its government belong to the citizens of Kentucky and each person has a right to know how his or her tax dollars are being spent.
Transparency is required at all levels of government, from the courthouse to the statehouse, at our universities and in our pension system.
Each citizen deserves to have faith in his or her government and public officials.
As attorney general, I have made protecting your right to know how government agencies are operating one of my highest priorities.
Under Kentucky law, the Office of the Attorney General is responsible for safeguarding the Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act – the very laws that ensure government is open and transparent. These laws allow citizens and the media the ability to see matters before state and local governmental bodies and public universities.
This authority is purposefully in the Office of the Attorney General, an independent constitutional office, to allow us to hold state government accountable.
Every day the public relies on these laws.
These laws provide standards on how public entities should announce, hold and record meetings – so that the public and media can attend and participate.
To help the public and media stay informed, these laws also provide agencies with guidance on how records, like reports or emails, are requested and made available.
Under the open meetings or open records laws, if citizens or journalists believe their request was denied improperly they have the right to appeal to my office.
In the first year of my administration, my office was asked 380 times for a decision through an open records or open meetings appeal – a 20 percent increase from the previous year.
In reviewing each appeal, we deal with issues that are complicated and nuanced, which require significant research and analysis in the application of the law.
Many of our decisions involve high-profile cases that have generated much public debate and underscored the need for transparency and accountability.
For example, recently, my office ruled that public universities violated the Open Records Act when they denied access to documents containing allegations of sexual misconduct by university staff.
The universities also denied my office the ability to confidentially review the requested documents, claiming the documents were protected under several federal laws, including FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Kentucky state law though gives authority to the attorney general to confidentially review documents. Without that review, there can be no government transparency and a bad actor could easily cheat the system by forgoing an independent review on whether or not the documents were properly withheld.
In the context of a university, without this review institutions can hide serious issues related to sexual assault, ignore victims and tell parents and families that a given campus may be safer than it is.
Essentially, the universities’ actions are attempting to turn Kentucky’s Open Records Act into a ‘trust me’ law.
To ensure that Kentucky’s laws on government transparency remain intact, my office is currently in litigation against one of the universities.
Outside the high-profile appeals, our office continues to work tirelessly every day to apply the law on issues to resolve disputes between a public agency and the media or public.
In a few examples of decisions, my office concluded that:
– Kentucky State Police violated the Open Records Act in denying the request for a copy of the bodycam video of an officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of the perpetrator.
– The Office of the Governor did not violate the Open Records Act in withholding emails pertaining to the Governor’s schedule as preliminary. The Office of the Governor did not violate the Open Records Act in withholding emails as preliminary, attorney-client privileged, or both, with the exception of two e-mails. The Governor’s Office initially violated the Open Records Act in not providing a brief explanation of how the exemption applied to the records withheld, but subsequently cured that deficiency on appeal.
– The City of Covington did not excessively delay the inspection of requested e-mails and, for the most part, met its burden of justifying the withheld e-mails and redactions under the cited exceptions.
– The Pike County Fiscal Court violated the Open Meetings Act in posting an insufficiently specific special meeting agenda and in discussing multiple potential layoffs in a closed session under the individual personnel discussions exemption.
Our decisions on these matters demonstrate how critical transparency is to good government, how my office is committed to the law and tough on those who are found to be in violation of it.
The Office of the Attorney General takes great pride in upholding both the spirit and the letter of Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws, and we are working to make sure these laws are there to help all Kentuckians seek the truth from public entities.
Andy Beshear is the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.