LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville Metro government violated Kentucky’s open meetings act when a panel of citizens and government employees evaluated plans for city-owned land in private, Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office ruled this week.

WDRB News had asked Beshear to determine if a committee that reviewed proposals for the Heritage West site in the Russell neighborhood is a public agency that should have opened its meetings to all.

The city had maintained the meetings could be kept out of public view because they weren’t formal committee meetings, and they had declined to disclose who made up the group and a similar panel that recommended a developer for the Urban Government Center property on Barret Avenue.

In a March 12 opinion, Assistant Attorney General Matt James noted that the Heritage West committee was created for a “specific purpose,” had a formal membership and included citizens to “do the work of a public agency.”

When members of the public are charged with such work, “it can no longer be fairly characterized as ‘the day-to-day administrative work of a public agency,’” James wrote.

“While agencies may always create opportunities for public input and discussion, Louisville Metro has gone beyond merely soliciting input; it has delegated a significant part of its duties to consider multi-million dollar project to private individuals.”

In response, Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration released the names of the committee members. A spokeswoman for the city’s Louisville Forward economic development agency said in a statement that Metro government “believes in transparency, and we have said from the start that we would release the evaluation panel names.”

The spokeswoman, Jessica Wethington, reiterated in an emailed statement that the evaluation committees “made recommendations to Louisville Metro Government for subsequent consideration and decision making by Metro leaders. The City, in conjunction with the County Attorney’s office, is evaluating the remainder of the opinion and will address future aspects of the opinion as necessary.”

In September, Fischer announced he was following the Heritage West committee’s endorsement and choosing the Louisville Urban League’s proposed track and field complex at Heritage West. That came after a call for proposals for the site at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

A similar committee recommended in December that the Fischer administration choose the Marian Group to redevelop nearly 12 acres of former government buildings in the Paristown Pointe neighborhood on Barret Avenue into a mix of housing, office and commercial space and possibly a “boutique” hotel.

In both cases, city officials went along with the committees’ recommendations and are currently negotiating final agreements. They had declined to say who served on those panels and denied requests for meeting minutes and other records that would identify the evaluators until after the deals were complete.

Holding open meetings would still have allowed the committee to invoke state law and hold sensitive talks about the proposals in private, but only after likely calling attendance that would have identified the members.

WDRB challenged the Heritage West process – the first of the two to be completed.

Louisville Metro government argued that the nine-member evaluation team, which included four citizens put forth by Metro Council members, had no power to make a final decision or award a contract. It also stressed the importance of confidential proceedings during city procurements.

And the city claimed its committee wasn’t a public agency, citing a 2009 attorney general’s opinion in which three Bowling Green Municipal Utilities workers recommended an insurance agent to the board. In that instance, those employees were found to be acting within their day-to-day duties and not as part of a formal committee.

The Louisville case is similar to one pending in Frankfort. A committee of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet didn’t provide notice of its meetings, or open them to the public, before choosing a developer to raze and rebuild the Capital Plaza Tower. The structure was imploded over the weekend.

The State Journal newspaper appealed the closed meetings and Beshear’s office eventually ruled that cabinet violated the state’s open meetings law by failing to meet in public. State Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, has filed a bill in this year’s legislature that would exempt meetings of such selection or evaluation committees from being open to the public.

The bill cleared the state government committee but hasn’t received a vote on the House floor.

Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general who now directs the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government, said the Louisville case is a victory for transparency.

“It reaffirms the principle that the committee of a public agency is a public agency and refutes the notion that government can operate by private committee or secret committee,” she said.

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Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.