Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Committee keeping proposed city budget to itself

By Heather Rous
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

At the Midway Finance and City Property Committee meeting on Tuesday, called in part to review the proposed 2010-11 city budget, the proposal was distributed to members but Mayor Tom Bozarth declined to give it to the Midway Messenger.

The meeting was called to discuss revenue streams, reviewing the budget draft, and reviewing any updates on city properties, according to the meeting notice and agenda. However, Bozarth informed the committee that discussion of the budget would be delayed until the meeting of the full city council on Monday, April 19.

“We’ll go over it with everyone on Monday at the meeting and spend some time with it and then come back and go over it again at our first meeting in May,” said Bozarth. “That’s my thought. If you have any questions let me know and I’ll try to answer them to the best of my ability.”

Bozath is not a member of the committee, but committee chair Sharon Turner agreed with the approach.

A copy of the current budget was distributed, and when Al Cross, publisher of the Midway Messenger, asked Bozarth for a copy of the proposed budget, Bozarth declined.

“It’s a proposed budget, Al,” said Bozarth. “So we’ll give you a copy when it’s been approved by council.” He said the council would discuss the budget at its next two meetings, but noted that the budget does not have to be approved until June.

Cross and this reporter then submitted a formal, written request for a copy of the proposed budget. Cross told Bozarth and the committee that the situation represents a gap between the state open-meetings and open-records laws. The request for the budget argues that documents discussed by members of a public agency at a public meeting should be made available for immediate inspection.

“Based on how the laws are written, it’s open for interpretation,” Cross told the officials. “It’s never even been decided by the attorney general.”

The law states that “preliminary drafts” and “preliminary recommendations” are subject to inspection only on court order. Those are very limited phrases, Cross said after the meeting. “Recommendations are by nature preliminary, so the adjective in the latter phrase compounds its limiting nature,” he said, adding:

“A proposed budget being circulated among employees might be considered a ‘preliminary draft,’ but our position is that it ceases to fit that phrase once it is distributed to and discussed by members of a public agency at a public meeting.”

In 2000, the attorney general’s office ruled that a newspaper reporter was not entitled to a copy of a proposed county budget that had been distributed to the Fiscal Court, but not discussed at a court meeting. The draft budget was voluntarily released to the reporter.

Turner said that it was her understanding that she and the other committee member present, Charlann Wombles, were following state law. She said the committee’s understanding has always been that proposed documents, until they’re approved at council, are not subject to open-records laws.

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