Whispered discussions by Garrard magistrates leave public in the dark

June 30, 2004|EMILY BURTON

A government "of the people" will not serve the people if that public is kept at a distance, making private dictatorships out of public servants.

This threat is lurking through the back doors of the Garrard County Courthouse. The rights of citizens are being challenged in Garrard County by a whispering hoard of Fiscal Court magistrates. Without the benefit of honest public discussion, or working microphones, the magistrates are creating a peep show at meetings. Count the votes as they raise their hands, but pay no attention to the discussions whispered behind them.

It is a quiet addiction that is eroding open meeting laws and cheating the public out of their right to participate in their government.

One such conversation was held during Thursday's fiscal court meeting. But don't look for it in the minutes. Of the multiple microphones sitting on the table, none was working. The discussion was too quiet for the clerk to hear and record. It was even too low for me to hear, sitting within two yards of the three huddled members.


As Magistrate Joe Leavell addressed a member of the audience, the three remaining men held their own private debate. After several minutes of their disconcerting hiss, I was forced to speak up.

I informed the magistrates that, according to state law, they could not hold such a veiled conversation in a public meeting unless they go into executive session. After being ignored, I turned to the judge-executive and informed him that he had a serious problem. His court was stomping all over open meeting laws. He replied that he guessed they should turn on the microphones for the next meeting.

Only after my loud persistence did the three men cease whispering, turn angry faces forward and decline to utter another word before voting.

Afterward the judge invited them back to his office to continue the conversation elsewhere, as he put it. If more than two of them had joined the judge in his office, as it appeared they were going to, it was legally considered a quorum and therefore open to public scrutiny. In fact, should any public policy or voting matter have been discussed by them at that point, their actions would have been blatantly illegal.

But such legal problems have plagued the court before. The attorney general's office ruled in May that the magistrates could not hold an "inaudible discussion," such as they had done during a previous public meeting.

It would, therefore, behoove citizens to keep a keen eye on the pack, and demand that their public servants include them in public policy discussions.

For their part, the public should be familiar with open meeting and record laws and hold officials accountable when they are broken.

Servants of the people should remain just that, but more than ever now, with issues like lawsuits and county planning and zoning on the agenda.

In the end, it is only the people of Garrard County who lose if none come to shine a spotlight on the dark corners of public meetings.

Central Kentucky News Articles