|Cold Spring city council voted to appeal a recent decision by the attorney general that they violated open meeting law in two December meetings. FTM file. |
by Robin Gee, city council beat editor
At the February 22 council meeting, Cold Spring city council members voted to appeal a decision by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron that the city had violated open meetings laws in two meetings in December 2020.
According to the decision, the city had failed to give proper notice for two special meetings held December 17 and 30, and also had taken actions not on the agenda following executive sessions.
The attorney general ruled the city violated the law when it failed to respond to a complaint by Campbell County schools attorney Jason Reed that the council had not provided adequate information about how to access the meetings, which were held via Zoom. Cameron also agreed that the city was in violation because it took action after the closed session, while the agenda stated no action would be taken.
A battle of interests
The complaint stems from the ongoing battle between the city and the Campbell County School District over property belonging to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). The $6.5 million property is approximately 30 acres located at 3725 Alexandria Pike.
A circuit court ruling earlier this month established the city had a legitimate interest and the right to intervene, allowing the city to continue with its plan to become owners of the property through an agreement with developer Al. Neyer and the DAV. The pivotal part of the plan is to bring St. Elizabeth onboard to develop a healthcare facility on the site.
At the same time the school district is awaiting news on its move to condemn the property through eminent domain. The property would provide a building and acreage for a much-needed new middle school to serve the northern tier of the county.
The decision to appeal
Although the agenda for the February meeting stated council would go into executive session to discuss whether or not to appeal the decision, technical difficulties made that impossible. City attorney Brandon Voelker asked council if they would like to proceed with the discussion of the matter in the open meeting, although he would refrain from discussing courtroom strategy.
Voelker reiterated his public response to the decision. He cited three previous decisions that allowed for councils to take actions coming out of executive session even if these are not stated specifically on the agenda. Stating that an action might be taken has been considered more of a courtesy to the public, to let people know so they can decide whether to stay until the executive session is over, he explained.
He argued that this new decision departs from previous decisions, making it hard for public entities to know the correct and best way to proceed.
"My concern is this opinion stands for bad law because it goes against three straight holdings. It’s just not what they’ve ruled in the past...So the issue is now, they’re creating conflict as to what is the proper action to take."
Council member Cindy Moore noted the council does not create the agendas. "I was concerned because [the decision] said council had illegal meetings and all that, but ... we don’t make the agenda. We are just following the agenda we are given."
Voelker agreed, "You point out a fundamental problem. The attorney general of this state doesn’t even have an understanding."
Moore asked about penalties and fees involved. According to the law, the party making the complaint could be awarded court costs if the violations are proven to be willful, and the court could award the complaining party up to $100 per violation, and actions taken could be voided.
As far as fees to appeal, Voelker said, it would be minimal, under $250. The council voted to appeal the attorney general’s decision.
Ongoing technical difficulties
Technical and related communication issues have plagued the city’s council meetings since the decision to provide live meetings online. After the complaint by the school district, the city decided to return to offering in-person meetings to increase public access. Yet, most of the members have chosen to continue to join in the meetings remotely.
Sound issues in the council chambers have caused members joining via Zoom to ask for clarifications because they cannot understand everyone in the room.
Officials have tried different ways to address the sound situation. When City Administrator Steve Taylor asked if sound had improved for remote members, Moore said she still had some difficulty understanding what was being said.
Council member Chris Ampfer noted the sound coming from Taylor’s mike was good, but he could only hear clearly whatever came through Taylor’s mike, not from others in the room.
These issues forced the cancelation of the executive session part of the meeting as it could not be determined how members could return to open session after it was concluded. Paul Kloeker was the only council member to attend the in-person meeting. Members Ampfer, Moore and Deanna Hengge joined via Zoom. Members Lisa Cavanaugh and Adam Sandfoss were unable to access the meeting properly due to technical difficulties and so could not fully participate.