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Bill allows officials to avoid in-person meetings even after COVID is gone

Amye Bensenhaver
Amye Bensenhaver

With no discussion — and only one dissenting vote — HB 453, “An Act relating to open meetings,” sailed through the Senate on March 22, despite the Kentucky Open Government Coalition’s best efforts to alert lawmakers to the threat the bill poses. Gov. Andy Beshear signed the bill into law on March 25.

It’s doubtful he read, or was given the opportunity to read, the Kentucky Open Government Coalition’s veto request. The endorsement of groups far more powerful than ours seems to have decided the question.

To be clear, this bill does not promote transparency. Instead, it:

  • creates two new exceptions to the open meetings law;
  • ignores the vastly superior hybrid model for public meetings, requiring both in-person and live-streamed “video teleconferenced” meetings, in favor of one or the other at the agency’s option;
  • omits much needed safeguards on “video teleconferenced meetings,” such as roll call votes, aimed at protecting the public’s right to both hear and see everything that transpires during the open, public meeting; and
  • if abused or overused, may shift the longstanding preference for in-person meetings to those meetings that permit elected and appointed officials to erect an electronic barrier between themselves and their constituents.

Minus the new exceptions to the open meetings law, it is not an altogether bad bill. It is, however, a lost opportunity. Given the still uncertain threats to public health (as opposed to the convenience of public officials and a desire to avoid face to face interaction with their constituents), permanent codification of a “virtual” meetings provision was a necessity.

Just not this half-baked bill which opens the door to exploitation at the public’s expense.

HB 453 was a lost opportunity to actually enhance and promote the broadest possible public participation in public affairs. With a bit more time and effort, it might have achieved meaningful progress. It does not.

Ignore, if you will, the two new exceptions to the open meetings law (and don’t doubt that there are more to come); ignore, if you will, what might have been accomplished, the Kentucky Open Government Coalition will not.

We will continue to try to make our small voice heard and to find a place at the table when these revisions to the open meetings or records law are brokered. But please, Governor Beshear, consider other points of view before hastily signing a highly questionable bill into law. The Kentucky Open Government Coalition is always available to discuss its concerns.

The Kentucky Open Government Coalition sent a veto request to the governor’s office. You can read that letter here.

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Commentary

Amye Bensenhaver

Amye is a retired assistant AG who specialized in open records laws. She is the co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition. (Read the rest of her bio on the Contributors page.)


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