HAZARD – The Perry County Fiscal Court is denying that its members violated state law when they met with an engineer at the Perry County Courthouse on March 21, but also asked for clarification of the state’s open meetings law following their latest meeting this week.
The meeting on March 21 took place a couple hours after the fiscal court adjourned from their regular meeting, and Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble formally responded to a complaint on Monday that it was open to the public and announced during the court’s regular meeting earlier that day.
Lost Creek resident Lloyd Engle, who attended the regular meeting, filed a complaint with the county attorney’s office on March 23, alleging that the fiscal court violated a state statute because the later meeting was not properly noticed as per the Kentucky open meetings law. He added that Judge Noble admitted to violating the law in the past.
“You admitted in the regular 10 o’ clock meeting that morning that you knew this would be a violation, and that you would hold the meeting anyway,” Engle wrote in the complaint.
Engle requested that the fiscal court inform the public of matters discussed in the later meeting, and “immediately permanently cease violation of the 1974 Open Meetings Act.”
According to Kentucky Revised Statute 61.810, which is part of the act to which Engle referred, any meeting where a majority of the members of a public agency are present and discuss or take action on public business constitutes a meeting that is required to be open to the public. There are several exceptions, which include times when those agencies may be discussing action on personnel or pending litigation.
Other statutes require that all regular meetings be announced in a schedule, and that the minutes reflect any action taken during those meetings. Yet another statute governs special called meetings, which must be noticed 24 hours ahead of time.
Judge Noble responded to Engle’s complaint with a letter dated March 26, saying that the “Perry County Fiscal Court denies that any violation of the Kentucky Open Meetings Act occurred on March 21, 2012.”
According to Noble’s response, the fiscal court had requested that a representative from Spalding Engineers, an engineering firm in Hazard that oversees waterline extension in the county, be present at the court’s regular meeting at 10 a.m. on March 21. He wasn’t available at the time, Noble noted, but was available to meet at 1:30 p.m.
“This change in time was announced at the regularly scheduled 10:00 a.m. meeting,” Noble wrote. “It was announced that this meeting would be open to the public and any interested parties were invited and encouraged to attend. The Perry County Fiscal Court met with the representatives of Spalding Engineers at 1:30 p.m. on March 21, 2012. The meeting was held in the Perry County Courthouse and was open to the public.”
Noble added that the meeting included discussion of waterline projects to the remaining unserved areas of the county and how best to serve those communities, and that no action was taken.
“No vote of any official action was taken as a result of this meeting,” he noted. “Spalding Engineers will provide a report and recommendations at the regularly scheduled Fiscal Court meeting for April 2012.”
The fiscal court met again for a special called meeting on Thursday of this week, where they tackled a short agenda and voted on amendments to the county’s budget before adjourning.
It was after adjournment when Judge Noble asked County Attorney John Carl Shackelford to clarify the state’s open meetings law and advise the court as to when it would be proper for them to meet. Noble specifically mentioned the March 21 meeting with the engineer.
District 3 Magistrate Earl Brashear also sought clarification, and noted that often times when fiscal court members schedule to attend training in Louisville or Lexington, they all ride together to save money on fuel costs by taking one vehicle rather than four.
“Which one does the public want us to do?” Brashear asked. “We’ve got to go to these schools, and they say we (fiscal court members) can’t be together.”
“That’s not an issue,” Shackelford responded, adding that conferences or training sessions sponsored by another agency, such as the Kentucky Association of Counties, is not a meeting of the fiscal court as defined by state law. He added that his initial response is since there would be an exception to a quorum of the fiscal court attending the session, that may also include the trip to those sessions as well.
“If the conference itself is exempt and not called a meeting, I don’t know why the ride there would not also be that,” he said.
Noble admitted that while he did comment during the regular meeting on March 21 that the court had no doubt violated the law, he claimed he was actually talking about those work sessions, and was later informed by Shackelford that those sessions are not a violation.
“What I was talking about in the meeting was when we go to Louisville and these places,” he said.
Noble added that in his training about open meetings he always understood that as long as the doors were open to the public there was no violation.
Noble also inquired about what he termed emergencies, and said in the case of last week’s meeting, the county had $500,000 it might lose if not allocated, and he needed to quickly know what areas of the county magistrates need waterlines extended. He added that the court wants to do what is legal in terms of meetings.
“Is that wrong, or is that a work session?” Noble asked.
“If all the magistrates are there, then that should be open to the public,” Shackelford replied.
District 1 Magistrate Frank Hurley said because it was announced during the regular meeting that they would be meeting again later that day, it had become public knowledge.
District 2 Magistrate Ronald Combs remarked that he was glad the magistrates were all together during the meeting, because if they hadn’t decided how they were going to use those funds, that money would have been lost.
“We looked around at places where Earl could use the money, or Frank, and told, you know, put it over to that district where you don’t lose the money,” Combs said.
Judge Noble said he viewed that as a fiscal court that is working together.
“In my opinion, you’ve got to work together to do the job that you need to do in the county, and if you’ve got two magistrates sitting there against, and two for, you’ll never get anything done,” Noble said. “Everybody needs to know up front what’s going on, and everybody needs to be truthful with one another.”
Brashear added that he believes any controversy over the issue boils down to someone hoping to divide the fiscal court.
“It’s seems to me that somebody here don’t want us working together,” he said.
While Shackelford noted that from what he could gather about the second meeting on March 21, it appeared that the magistrates met in public, and with public knowledge, and that doesn’t seem to be a violation of the open meetings law. But he added that the public should be given an opportunity to see the fiscal court working when they meet.
Shackelford said, while noting that there are exceptions, “Any place where a quorum of the members of the fiscal court are at the same place, and county business is discussed, then that needs to be in public.”