Attorney General: JCPS board violated Kentucky law when it met at private downtown office
The Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank, challenged whether the meeting complied with a state requirement that public agencies meet at places that are convenient for the public.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Jefferson County Board of Education violated the state’s open meetings laws when it held a special Sunday meeting at a downtown law office, the Kentucky Attorney General’s office has ruled.
The Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank that recently launched a Center for Open Government, challenged whether the meeting complied with a requirement that public agencies meet at places that are convenient for the public and at specified times.
The school board met April 30 on the 28th floor of PNC Plaza at the Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs law office to discuss an interim superintendent to replace Donna Hargens, who had announced her resignation. Media were notified days before that the meeting was scheduled.
The board went into a closed, executive session for several hours but took no action before it adjourned.
A WDRB News crew had no difficulty entering the building; a security guard directed reporters to the meeting, but no public notice was observed in the lobby that would indicate a meeting was occurring. At least one citizen also attended.
Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs provides legal services for the school district. There would have been an extra cost involved in opening the VanHoose Education Center over the weekend, school board chair Chris Brady argued, according to the Attorney General’s ruling.
In an interview, Brady said the school board “made every effort to follow the letter of the law on this, as well as to be fiscally responsible.”
“We needed extra time to do this work. VanHoose isn’t open on Sunday,” he said. “Our goal was for the meeting to not incur additional expense to taxpayers. The attorneys didn’t charge us for the use of their office.”
Brady said he doesn't expect the school board to appeal the ruling. He also criticized as "ludicrous" the Bluegrass Institute's claim that it found the doors of PNC Plaza locked when it tried to access the building on Sunday, July 9.
"The only thing this group has done has guaranteed that any time there is a special meeting, even on weekends, that there will be a cost incurred by the taxpayers of Jefferson County," Brady said.
In arguments made to the Attorney General, the school board contended that the tower at 500 W. Jefferson Street is a “communal, metropolitan building” that has free street parking nearby. The board also reiterated that meeting at the law office conserved “considerable” costs.
But the ruling by Attorney General Andy Beshear and Assistant Attorney General James M. Herrick disagreed with the school board’s position, noting the district’s system of 174 schools and related buildings, including libraries and gymnasiums.
“With such a selection of locations available in public buildings, we cannot reasonably find it ‘convenient to the public’ to hold a public meeting in a private law office on the 28th floor of a privately owned building, based solely on unspecified ‘costs’ of opening the VanHoose building on a Sunday.”
The Attorney General's office also said it was unaware of any decision finding that a meeting in an office or private location was deemed "convenient to the public." Last year, the office ruled that the city of Mockingbird Valley in Jefferson County violated the open meetings law when the city council convened in the mayor's driveway and home.
Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, said holding a meeting in a private office in a skyscraper can be “very intimidating to the average citizen.”
He said his organization made an issue of the school board's meeting, in part, to stop it from setting a precedent.
“If we allow that to happen in one case,” Waters said, “it becomes a pattern.”
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