Amye Besenhaver: It’s Sunshine Week, met with mixed emotions; public affairs should be public

Once again, the Kentucky Open Government Coalition is celebrating Sunshine Week this week with mixed emotions.

It is, of course, important to recognize Sunshine Week and the value of open and transparent government to the people it serves. “The secret is,” as Bill Moyers once said, “the freedom tyrants dream of.”

Amye Bensenhaver

Sunshine Week is a national initiative launched in 2005 by the former American Society of News Publishers, now the News Leaders Association, to coincide with the birth week of the Sun Laws’ philosophical founding father, James Madison. It was Madison who said:

“A popular government, without popular information, nor means of acquiring it, is only the prologue of a farce or a tragedy; or maybe both. Knowledge will forever dominate ignorance. And a people who want to be their own governor must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.

Sunshine Week attendees, including nonprofits like the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, celebrate in different ways. This year, we asked open government advocates from across the state to share their experiences to remind Kentucky people of the importance of nearly half-century-old laws that guarantee their right to know that their officials “effectively serve the public”. .”

Unfortunately, these lessons have been overlooked by many elected and elected officials in Kentucky. Perhaps more importantly, these lessons are entirely lost on the majority of our General Assembly members. Every year around this time, they introduce new measures aimed at undermining Kentucky’s open meeting and open records laws and limiting the public’s right to know under the thinnest of pretexts.

Open records legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2021—in 2022 lawmakers targeted both open assembly laws and open records—has had adverse consequences easily foreseen, and likely intended, by cynical senators and representatives who no longer bother to even pay lip service to the importance of open government.

This includes a 2021 law excluding nonresidents from using the Open Records Act that prevented, for example, a UC Santa Barbara student from accessing Louisville Metro Police Department records. for a research project and blocked grieving parents in Colorado from accessing files on their son’s death in Kentucky from the Richmond Police Department.

It also includes the 2021 Act excluding the legislative branch of state government – ​​the General Assembly and the Legislative Research Commission – from the Open Records Act. The same act eliminates the right of appeal to the courts in the inevitable access to documents disputes that have arisen and will continue to arise under the absurdly narrow statutory regime governing access to legislative documents.

The Kentucky Open Government Coalition has participated in access to records litigation under the two new laws. With the legal support and expertise of attorneys Jon Fleischaker, Michael Abate, and Rick Adams, of Kaplan, Johnson, Abate, & Bird LLP of Louisville, we are also engaged in litigation that will test the fundamental principles of the laws on Kentucky’s Open Government.

We know what we are talking about.

But we regularly return to the roots of Kentucky’s open government laws to remind ourselves that, at their core, public records and open meeting laws were enacted for the benefit of the public and that the public’s right to know transcends any embarrassment or loss of “efficiency”.

With that in mind, we reached out to citizens and media advocates for open cases and open meetings to share their experiences with the laws.

In preparation for Sunshine Week, we collected their stories — their testimonies — about the laws. From a newly elected school board member facing the ostensibly overwhelming forces of the State Superintendents Association to a county official turned state legislator who exposed local wrongdoing through access to records and was inspired to champion Kentucky’s open government laws during his Commonwealth service, their stories are a critical reminder. Please take a moment to read some or all of them at kyopengov.org.

Not all of their stories have happy endings, but they all start with one premise: These recordings and meetings belong to the public. Public bodies simply hold them in trust. “The people, in delegating powers, do not give their functionaries the right to decide what is good for them to know; people insist on staying informed in order to maintain control over the instruments they have created.

These words appear in the preamble to Kentucky’s Open Government Laws and are repeated in Sun Laws across the United States. Our public records and open meeting laws ensure public trust and must remain strong.

When public trust is undermined, these laws are the best hope of holding public officials accountable.

We need to keep a watchful eye on the legislature and public agencies implementing Kentucky’s open government laws – as contributors to the Coalition’s Sunshine Week project have done in the past – and send a strong message that that we are not willing to accept bureaucratic inertia, give in to legislative excess, or give up our right to know.

Amye Bensenhaver is a retired assistant attorney general, open government advocate, and blogger for the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky. Along with Jennifer P. Brown, former Kentucky New Era editor and publisher of an online news site in her hometown of Hopkinsville, she helped establish the Kentucky Open Government Coalition to give everyone a voice. citizens who support government transparency and accountability.

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