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Jim Waters

As a free-market public policy organization, the Bluegrass Institute is committed to offering the best ideas for solving Kentucky’s greatest challenges. However, access to government – not just its final decisions but the discussions and disagreements policymakers have in reaching decisions – is critical to having a fully informed debate that offers the best chance of producing the right policies for a better Kentucky. 

On August 29. 2017, the Kentucky House of Representatives denied citizens that access when it held a meeting behind closed doors the day after the release of a consultant’s contentious recommendations calling for controversial changes to public workers’ and retirees’ pension benefits. Among those who testified were the state budget director and a representative of the consultant. 

House leadership at the time sought to justify the meeting by claiming that not allowing the media to cover – or citizens to attend – the meeting would “make it a more comfortable setting” for members to ask questions. It’s important to note this since such reasoning is at the heart of much of the erosion of transparent government we’ve seen in Kentucky over the years. 

However, I responded at the time with a statement that “comfort and convenience cannot be the determinants in whether transparency laws are followed. These laws exist to ensure that the formation of public policy – the discussion, debate and disagreement of proposed reforms – is just as much a part of the public’s business as the final vote tallies on bills.” 

When public officials run for office, agree to an appointment as does a state budget director or conduct an audit using taxpayer funds as the pension consultant did, they must also accept that the dollars they spend and the decisions they make will – and must be – open to public scrutiny. Comfort cannot trump citizens’ rights to know how their dollars are spent or policy decisions affecting their lives are made. 

Fortunately, both the attorney general and Franklin Circuit Court supported claims filed by the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government that the legislature had violated the Open Meetings Act by conducting the closed-door meeting. House leaders didn’t help their cause by claiming that it was just a meeting of the Majority Caucus to which the Minority Caucus was also invited. 

Can you imagine the precedent that could have been established by allowing such nonsensical reasoning to stand without a successful challenge? Each time a politically thorny or inconvenient issue would find its way on to the agenda, there would be the temptation to close the doors and have a “more comfortable” discussion.

However, such closed-door meetings are not in citizens’ best interests and certainly don’t foster the kind of open, accountable and accessible government allowing for a fully informed exchange of ideas to determine the best path forward for our commonwealth. 

The successful court ruling also upheld another important claim fervently endorsed by the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government: the legislature must be held to the same standard of accountability required of every other public agency – especially when the issues being discussed represent one of the greatest threats to Kentucky’s economy such as the public pension system which was the focus of the closed-door meeting at the heart of the lawsuit. 

While there remains a lot of angst about legislators’ commitment to transparent government, we’ve got it on the record that the courts and the commonwealth’s Office of the Attorney General, where rulings regarding open records and meetings appeals have the force of law, holds that the legislature must adhere to Kentucky’s very fine open records and meetings’ laws – just like every other public agency. 

It’s been five years since the House tried to make themselves “more comfortable” at the expense of citizens’ right to know and the attorney general said: “You can’t do that.” It hasn’t happened since because when lawmakers – including the many who have replaced those responsible for this court case – know the public is watching, they’re more likely to restrain themselves and do the right thing. 

Let’s make sure they know we’re still watching! 



Jim Waters has served as president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions for ten years. He served in various roles, including vice president of communications, for the institute’s first eight years. 

Waters’ weekly syndicated column, the Bluegrass Beacon, has been featured in Kentucky’s newspapers and online publications for nearly 15 years. 

His articles have been published in national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Waters makes regular appearances on talk radio and public affairs TV programs statewide. He has also appeared on CNN television and national radio talk shows. 


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