Open-Records Audit in Kentucky Leads to State Action

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(AP) Standing on Kentucky’s House floor, Rep. Derrick Graham brandished visual aids to help illustrate the need for his latest proposal: newspapers carrying an installment of Kentucky’s first statewide open-records project.

“It makes people aware of some of the problems and the needs that we have in terms of trying to make sure that this law is carried out in the proper manner,” Graham said after the House passed his proposal aimed at bolstering local officials’ awareness about Kentucky’s Open Records Act.

Papers across the state this week published the series organized and conducted by the Kentucky Press Association, The Associated Press, and other newspaper, professional, and university student groups.

The survey was conducted in almost all of Kentucky’s 120 counties in October. Auditors asked for four public documents: a city budget, a county judge-executive’s expense report, a school superintendent’s contract, and a jail log.

But the audit found easy public access isn’t always the case.

City budgets were produced in 99 out of 113 instances, and county judge-executives served up their expense records 79 out of 109 times, the survey found. School superintendents provided auditors their salary and compensation package information in 56 out of 110 cases, and denied them 13 times. However, county jailers produced jail logs 28 out of 113 times and refused 67 requests.

While his proposal had been filed before the series was published, Graham said the project was a service to the public that could promote awareness about the law.

State Sen. Julian Carroll, who was Kentucky’s governor when an open-records law was passed in 1976, said he was disappointed with the series’ findings. Carroll, a Frankfort Democrat, said he planned to correspond with the counties he represents to find out why they didn’t all fully comply.

“I find it very difficult to understand why, out of 120 counties, you have so many counties that failed to comply 100 percent,” Carroll said. “Any public information — and the statute is very clear on what is and what is not public information — should be produced upon a request within the time frame or an extended time frame. There is no excuse for not producing it.”

Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, said he hadn’t had a chance to read the entire series. However, Harris said, the survey was a good idea to help people understand the law.

Harris’ district includes Henry County, which had a compliance rate of less than 50 percent, according to the survey.

“The survey of open records, I think that’s a good idea because we want to make sure that the public, no matter who they are, can have the assurance that they can request any public information and get it on a timely basis,” Harris said.

Attorney General Greg Stumbo, whose office reviews open-records appeals, said in a statement that he was “very pleased with the coverage” in the open-records series.

Counties that didn’t have full compliance should “take a look at their procedures and see if they want to be more responsive,” the statement said.

Bobby Waits, president of the Kentucky Jailers’ Association, said some jailers might have been concerned about possibly exposing their counties to lawsuits. Some jail logs may contain confidential medical information, or could pose security problems if publicized, Waits, who is also the Shelby County jailer, said.

In instances where there is doubt about a document, most jailers would turn to their respective county attorneys, Waits said. But there should be a more clear-cut definition of what documents are public, Waits said.

“Do I take a chance in giving you that information and risk it being wrong and face a lawsuit?” Waits said. “My first and foremost responsibility is protecting my county.”

Crittenden County jailer Rick Riley said he disagreed with the audit and how it was conducted. Riley — who refused to give auditors his jail logs — said he would have produced them if auditors had introduced themselves or indicated their motives.

State law does not require citizens to show identification when requesting information.

When asked by a reporter for The Associated Press — who identified himself — Riley released the jail’s log.

“I’m not in a position to just hand things out to anybody who just walks in off the street,” Riley said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know what purpose it is that they would want that list, and I need to be afforded an opportunity to know that.”

Vince Lang, executive director of the Kentucky County-Judge Executive Association, said he heard some county judges discussing the series, but hadn’t fully read it himself. Lang’s organization would try to get more information on the laws out to its members, he said.

“It’s kind of a good test to see where everybody is,” Lang said.

Bob Arnold, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Counties, said most county officials are aware of their obligations under the open-records law. Still, some county officials worry about potential lawsuits that could result from improperly releasing a document.

“These jailers and folks are just scared to death of being sued again — about anything,” Arnold said.

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