Stopping efforts to limit access to information
It wouldn’t be a legislative session in Kentucky if there weren’t efforts on the part of some elected officials to weaken Kentucky’s Open Records laws, so in that sense, Senate Bill 101 and Senate Bill 130 are par for the course.
What sets these two pieces of legislation apart, however, is the audacity of efforts to convince the public that these laws are actually about promoting greater transparency. Supporters want you to believe this is about protecting poor, cash-strapped governments from the big, bad media empires, when in fact, what they really want is to let the fox guard the hen house.
Let’s start with Senate Bill 101, which is sponsored by Republican Sens. Julie Denton, Christian McDaniel and Whitney Westerfield. As it stands now, governments are required to publish financial information and other legal notices in the local newspaper, but SB 101 would allow them to instead post this information online at a website operated by local government.
So basically, their idea of improved transparency is to take this information out of the hands of an independent party and allow local governments to have control over what information they do or don’t make public. What’s really ironic is this “trust us” campaign is being led by the Kentucky League of Cities.
You remember the KLC, don’t you? This is the same organization that for years fought to keep their activities outside the parameters of open records laws, despite the fact they take hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from local governments. This is the same organization that used those tax dollars on lavish travel and perks, such as a BMW SUV for top executives.
One of KLC’s arguments for putting this information on a government-controlled website is that it will save cash-strapped cities money. We’ve heard this argument from KLC before. For years, they complained about the costs cities face with the state pension system, then gave more than $250,000 in forgivable loans to five employees so that they could buy more years of retirement — essentially further taxing the system they said cities couldn’t afford to support.
And yet now they say “trust us” on what information is made available to the public? No thanks.
Then there is Senate Bill 130, sponsored again by Denton. On the surface, this bill has some merit. It would require state officials — not the agencies they work for — to pay any court-ordered penalties for a willful violation of the Open Records Act. The hope is that officials might err on the side of transparency if they know it will be their dollars — and not tax dollars — at risk if they are found to have purposely violated the law.
But Denton was way off base when she told the Courier-Journal, “I look forward to having a discussion about this bill and having personal accountability in our cabinet so our tax dollars — tax dollars needed for our children in this state — are not given away to newspaper companies to pay legal fees.”
This is textbook blame-the-media political spin. For starters, any money recovered goes to lawyers, not newspaper companies, but that bit of truth doesn’t fit the agenda behind that statement. Beyond that, Denton, as a legislator, should know better than anyone that the open records law isn’t written for newspapers. It is written for every citizen in Kentucky. The sad part is, newspapers are one of the few entities that can actually afford to challenge governments who are in violation. Most individuals would be put into bankruptcy.
And that, we’re afraid, is the real motivation behind this law. Those backing it know that judges would be much less likely to hold an individual financially responsible than they would an agency. So fewer attorneys’ fees would be awarded, and eventually fewer open records cases would be filed — certainly by the public — thus giving government even more control over what you can and can’t know about their operations.
Is this really someone’s idea of transparency? Seems more like a sleight of hand to us.
— Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro
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