SPJ objects to Frankfort move against government transparency

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists objects to any ordinance, resolution or policy that restricts members of a public agency from commenting about discussions that the public agency holds in closed sessions.

We make this statement in response to the plan of the Frankfort city commission to add to its ethics ordinance language “that would prohibit commissioners from disclosing the contents of closed sessions,” according to The State Journal.

The Kentucky Open Meetings Act allows public agencies to meet in private for several legitimate reasons. Those exceptions can be abused, so public-agency members should be free to speak about such meetings without fear of official retribution. In the absence of journalists and others who act as watchdogs on government activities, public-agency members are the only available watchdogs, on themselves. They should not be muzzled. If they abuse their right of free speech, they are subject to political retribution by their fellow members and the voters.

Such whistleblowers should not be subject to official retribution, which appears to be the plan in Frankfort. The proposal there arose after one city commissioner told The State Journal what happened in a closed session immediately before the city manager was fired in open session (without any real discussion of the move) and another commissioner said the mayor had three votes going into the meeting to accomplish the firing.

The State Journal has filed a complaint with the attorney general, alleging that two commissioners and the mayor (a majority of the commission) violated the “rolling quorum” provision of the law, “which prohibits elected leaders from hashing out public policy in individual conversations rather than in full view of taxpayers,” as the newspaper accurately describes it in an editorial.

The State Journal also says, “While we agree that such disclosures should be rare, latitude must be left for an elected official to blow the whistle on illegal or improper behavior behind closed doors. An airtight ban almost certainly would violate an elected official’s First Amendment rights, if not a state law that protects whistleblowers.”

We agree, and ask the Frankfort city commission to forget this ill-advised notion – which would surely cost taxpayers for the defense of a lawsuit the city is likely to lose – and pay attention to the open-meetings law.

Tom Eblen, president
Al Cross, secretary

Approved by the chapter board, Oct. 11, 2020.