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Councilman's speakerphone presence violates meetings law

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    NMU         KENTUCKY         Freedom of Information         Nov 8, 2002    

Councilman’s speakerphone presence violates meetings law

  • A city council member’s participation in a public meeting via speakerphone is found unlawful by state attorney general.

Public bodies in Kentucky cannot conduct meetings with members participating via speakerphone because that would violate the state’s Open Meetings Act, according to a Nov. 1 attorney general’s decision.

Peewee Valley resident Stan L. Fitch Jr.’s asked the attorney general’s office to rule whether speakerphone presence violated the state’s Open Meeting Act. He had suggested in a letter to Peewee Valley Mayor Jim Kincer that the city council recognize that such a meeting violated the Act and apologize, but the council did not comply with his request.

When Fitch, then a candidate for the council, attended an Oct. 7 meeting, he found that only half the council attended and council member Roy Smith, who was then in New Hampshire, participated via a cellular phone with speaker capabilities.

Four of six council members must be physically present for a quorum and only three members were in the room, Fitch said.

Fitch submitted a written complaint two days later to Kincer, who responded Oct. 15 that the “participation of Mr. Smith in this meeting was not conducted in private and therefore, was not illegal.” Fitch’s appeal to the council was unsuccessful.

Assistant Attorney General Amye L. Bensenhaver wrote in the decision that they are not guided by the principle of liberal statutory construction but rather by “strict constriction which our courts have applied to open meetings disputes. . .”

Bensenhaver added that an absent member is not allowed to vote even if he or she is “constructively present” by audio. She noted, however, that a 1994 amendment to the act allows public bodies to conduct meetings through video teleconference. The difference, she said, is “the right of the public to observe the demeanor of agency members is corollary to the right to hear their comments.”

“The right of the public to be informed transcends any loss of efficiency,” Bensenhaver quoted the Kentucky Supreme Court in Lexington Herald-Leader Company v. University of Kentucky Presidential Search Committee.

“I agree with the decision whole-heartedly,” said Fitch. “I did it because I think the people’s business should be conducted legally.”

Fitch also appealed to the attorney general’s office in April, claiming that the city council conducted an emergency meeting illegally. The attorney general’s office held that such an action violated the “spirit and letter” of the Open Meetings Act.

Fitch lost the election by ten votes on Nov. 5.

AU


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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