Bill to weaken Kentucky’s Open Records Act needs more scrutiny

The board of directors of the SPJ Bluegrass Professional Chapter issued this statement today regarding House Bill 312:

A bill moving quickly through the Kentucky General Assembly would weaken the state Open Records Act, and Kentuckians need to know more about it, the board of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Bluegrass Chapter said today.

House Bill 312 would make leaders of the legislature the sole judges of what legislative records could be released; give public officials five days instead of three to respond to a records request; keep non-Kentuckians from using the open-records law; and impose other restrictions.

The House of Representatives passed the bill Friday, the day after its text was revealed. The Senate could pass it as early as Wednesday.

“This bill would reduce government transparency, and legislators are rushing it into law in a non-transparent way,” Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen said. “If legislators have legitimate issues with the Open Records Act, they should be willing to debate them in public. Many taxpayers don’t think we need more government secrecy.”

The Kentucky Press Association, the lobby for the state’s newspapers, did not oppose the bill, saying it was “the culmination of nearly two years’ worth of good-faith negotiations” and compromises by KPA, legislative leaders and the Kentucky League of Cities.

KPA General Counsel Jon Fleischaker, who largely wrote the Open Records law in 1976, told SPJ that the negotiations eliminated proposals that would have kept preliminary and economic-development records secret, and would have allowed individual legislators to decide whether to release records relating to themselves. KPA said its agreement not to oppose the bill prevented changes that would have “devastated the public’s right to know critical information about the state.

SPJ leaders said they appreciated KPA’s decades of leadership on open-government issues, and they understood the difficult situation the association faced. But they pointed out that the Open Records and Open Meetings acts were written to make government more accountable to citizens. While journalists use these laws to keep the public informed, most open-records requests are made by members of the public, not reporters.

“A deal between lobbying groups doesn’t have to be the last word when it comes to public access to government records,” said Bluegrass Chapter Secretary Al Cross, a former national SPJ president who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues as a University of Kentucky professor. “News organizations face difficult times and are less willing or able to fight these battles nowadays, so we want to remind Kentuckians that they also have roles to play, as citizens and voters.”

The Kentucky Open Government Coalition, a citizens group that wasn’t involved in the negotiations, opposes the bill.