Danville seeks 'way around' open meetings law

November 11, 2003|LIZ MAPLES

Mayor John W.D. Bowling wants to know if there is a "legal way around" the state's Open Meetings Law and asked City Attorney Ed Hays Monday what the penalty is for breaking the law.

Bowling said, laughing, that the youngest member of the Commission should serve whatever jail time might come with breaking the law.

The discussion came as Danville City Commission sought to keep secret a list of finalists vying for the job of city manager, open since April. Most commissioners cite a need to protect the candidates' privacy.

"There has to be a way not to violate the privacy of the candidates," said Commissioner Ryan Owens.

A screening committee is ready to submit finalists to the Commission, but wanted to narrow its list last week by assigning a number to each name and voting on the numbers. Notified that might be illegal, the committee met in executive session and emerged saying it would ask the Commission to clarify its role.


Monday, the Commission wanted to accept the committee's recommendations as a list of numbers.

Hays told the Commission that such a method would be a violation of the law because it would have the effect of taking a vote behind closed doors.

The screening committee is itself a public body because it was appointed by the City Commission. Ironically, the committee was appointed by commissioners in an effort to include the public in the selection process.

The committee has worked until recently with resumes that had names blacked out, but learned the names of the eight candidates they interviewed the last week of October.

Kentucky Press Association attorney Jon Fleischaker said that "it is clear that when the committee makes a decision it will have to be made in open session."

Private interviews are allowed, but votes must be in public

The open meetings law allows for private interviews with the candidates, but states that when a vote is taken it must be done in public.

The committee "cannot do it in a way that circumvents the law, not by secret ballot or code words," Fleischaker said.

The maximum penalty for a violation of the Open Meetings Law is the cost of attorney's fees and a $100 fine.

Bowling said he learned from City Clerk Donna Groves, a member of the screening committee, that two of the top candidates have said if the names became public they would withdraw.

Commissioner Terry Crowley said he didn't think that listing the candidates by number would be wrong. He said he believed that the privacy of the candidates was paramount to the public's right to know.

But Commissioner Jamey Gay held another view. "I don't want to see us playing crazy games to circumvent the law," he said.

Former City Manager Steve Biven resigned April 28, under pressure from a faction of the City Commission led by Bowling. Then assistant city manager Bridgette Milby was named interim city manager, and a screening committee was appointed. Those members are: James Atkins, Vaughn Frey, Norman Bartleson, Marge Blakey, Bill Grimes, Arletta Bendschneider, Cheri Bryant, Earl Coffey and Groves.

Hays said that he would try to get an opinion from Bill Thielen, an attorney for the Kentucky League of Cities.

Hays said that he believed a "reasonable person" could see an argument for both sides and if the city decided then not to release the names, anyone who objects could file a complaint with the Kentucky Attorney General, who has enforcement authority over the law.

Crowley said that if Hays still believed, after talking to other attorneys, that the names had to be public, then the commissioners should have a special meeting to discuss it.

Bowling had asked if the committee could give a list of its comments about each finalist. He later backed off the request when Hays told him that those comments would also become public record.

The Commission will interview the finalists once they are determined.

The committee members asked to sit in on those interviews, but Crowley, Gay and Bowling said they didn't think that was appropriate because the committee's duty to select finalists would have already been fulfilled.

Hays said he believes that if the committee sat in on the interviews, then it would have taken no final action on the candidates and so the names could remain anonymous.

Fleischaker, the KPA attorney, said that for the commissioners to have interviews of finalists, then it would indicate that the committee had made a final decision and that decision would have to be made in public.

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