Thursday, June 13, 2024
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HB 509 seeks to fundamentally change the KY Open Records Act

By Amye Bensenhaver

The annual legislative assault on Kentucky’s open government laws has commenced in earnest, but this year with a vengeance. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the future of the Kentucky Open Records Act is at stake.

Sponsored by Rep. John Hodgson (R-Fisherville), Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Middletown), and Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect), HB 509 establishes what The Bowling Green Daily Times once described as “a codified way to evade watchdogs, both in the press and the general public.”

BURYING THE LEDE

Behind an elaborate smokescreen of compliance with recent court opinions directing public agencies to assign public email addresses to “officers, employees, board members, and commission members. . .for the purpose of conducting the business of the public agency,” is a proposed statutory scheme that chokes public access off at its throat.

HB 509 establishes an extraordinarily high bar for determining whether a record is a “public record” subject to the open records law to begin with. In addition to the existing requirement that the record “is prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public agency,” HB 509 would require the record to “document, record, memorialize, or give notice to a person outside the public agency of a transaction or final action.” 

Thus, unless a record is not only “prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public agency” but also documents “a transaction or final action,” it is not a “public record” subject to the open records law. It is, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible to the public.

Think police internal affairs investigations, consultants’ reports, petitions in support of executive pardons, public official itineraries.

Ironically, for those who might seek to hold our sitting Governor and executive branch accountable through their public records, the sponsors provide a statutorily approved cloaking device.

WHAT IS AND WHAT MAY BE A “PUBLIC RECORD”

Because the starting point for analysis under the open records law is determining whether the requested record is a “public record,” and because the definition of that term is radically circumscribed under HB 509, little will remain to secure meaningful public oversight.

By way of example, the sponsors identify as “public records” the following:

• Awarding, issuing, or amending a contract;
• Spending agency funds;
• Issuing a fine or penalty; or
• Issuing a public declaration or announcement of an event,
occurrence, determination, or decision of the public agency.

Records, in other words, that could typically be found on a public-facing agency website.

Importantly, Hodgson, Nemes, and Osborne take it one step further, expressly excluding from the already substantially narrowed definition of public record:

• Preliminary drafts;
• Notes;
• Correspondence with private individuals, other than correspondence
which is intended to give notice of a transaction or a final action;
• Preliminary recommendations or discussions;
• Scheduling matters;
• Communications of a purely personal nature unrelated to any governmental function;
• Memoranda, emails, or text messages in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended; and
• Information or documents stored or retained on a device or email account that is the personal property of a current or former employee, officer, board member, or commission member.

What are now exceptions to the open records law that a court can order the release of — if the agency fails to prove it properly denied a request — will be entirely excluded from the application of the open records law under HB 509.

The sponsors deliberately cut a wide swath through the open records law, leaving little more for public examination than lawmakers left for public examination when they excluded themselves from the open records law in 2021.

“THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS”

“Proponents of such measures,” The Daily News noted in its 2022 editorial, “are always ready with talking points laying out their supposed good intentions. But we’re not fooled. Amid a national political climate in which anti-media rhetoric is a cornerstone of mainstream conservative campaigning, are we really expected to believe it’s just an innocent coincidence that state Republicans are flooding the zone with a series of anti-journalism, anti-free speech and anti-transparency proposals?

“[T]he GOP’s recent track record leaves little reason to give the party the benefit of the doubt. A preponderance of the evidence suggests many Republicans have become so intolerant of scrutiny and accountability that they are willing to legislate against transparency and the First Amendment.”

And so it is with HB 509. Its sponsors will no doubt profess good intentions aimed at addressing the pervasive use of private devices and accounts to conduct public business — a dubious argument in itself based on the language of the bill — but their aggressively anti-transparency agenda is the clear impetus for HB 509.

WHAT WOULD REMAIN?

In truth, nothing the Kentucky General Assembly has done in the past to chip away at foundational principles of the open records law compares with the devastation HB 509 will wreak if it is enacted into law.

Kentucky’s open records law, “once a standard bearer for accountability laws,” will be hobbled by a definition of “public record” that is confined to those least likely to “cause inconvenience or embarrassment,” thereby eradicating any right to meaningful public agency oversight and divesting the public of decades-old rights that ensure we remain our own governors.

(“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822)

Have we, at last, reached the point where “[p]oliticians who lack the maturity or the backbone to deal with criticism or opposing viewpoints” will succeed in “rig[ging] the game in order to make their jobs more comfortable.”

“This recurring theme in conservative politics is profoundly disappointing and frightening,” The Daily News concluded in its 2022 editorial. We, like the politically right leaning Daily News editorial board, “urge reasonable-minded elected officials on both sides of the aisle to firmly oppose all such misguided and dangerous efforts to undermine our freedoms.”

Editor’s note: The foregoing was originally published in the Kentucky Open Government Coalition blog on Feb. 13, 2024. 

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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