Clouds threatened to darken one of Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws early last week. Legislation, purportedly filed to protect public employees’ privacy by Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican, stirred strong criticism in the press and on social media.
Senate Bill 14, which Carroll said came from a Secret Service agent/Homeland Security official, would have gutted Kentucky’s Open Meetings Law. “This is an effort to destroy the Open Records Law,” Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker told the Courier Journal. Fleischaker wrote the original Sunshine Laws — Open Meetings passed in 1974 and Open Records, passed in 1976 and represents Kentucky Press Association in matters of open government.
Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws are a model for the nation, a standing for which our citizenry can take great pride. Even so, those laws didn’t come easy; citizens of certain age recall the “bad old days” when they were routinely kicked out of public meetings or denied access to public records without cause. Passage of the Open Meetings/Open Records legislation ended that practice.
Sen. Carroll’s bill also carried a tone of intimidation in that it would have restricted public access not only to virtually every record of every public servant or contract employee, but also it would have imposed a $500 fine on clerks or anyone who released any record covered by the bill. It added an entirely new section to existing law, and required a judge to determine whether a record request was “improper or frivolous.” Under existing law citizens are entitled to public records simply because they want to see them. “The purpose for seeking a public record is irrelevant,” KPA attorney Michael Abate told the Courier Journal.
That’s the way it should continue — no ifs, no buts, no maybes, no third parties — records must remain open. Period!
To his credit, Carroll withdrew Senate Bill 14 last Wednesday, one day after he filed it. But, he said he plans to bring it back later this session with language changes and under a new number. Most citizens reading that bill will quickly conclude that it is not fixable with the change of a few words or removal of a sentence or two or even a paragraph. “… It is a disaster for the citizens of Kentucky,” Fleischaker said.
Carroll claims the bill’s only aim is to protect the personal information of police, social workers, judges, first responders and other public servants. Reporters and legal experts see it differently. Perhaps the most important element it would destroy — the public’s right to know about disciplinary action, evaluation or salaries of public servants. Such information is vital to open government and to holding public servants accountable to citizens whose tax dollars pay their salaries.
Citizens here and elsewhere must remain vigilant against the next iteration of this bill. The idea that public employees are endangered by Open Records is a false premise. Police, first responders, judges, social workers, et al, are in far greater danger of having their personal data compromised from computer hackers than from citizens asking to inspect their work records.