Commisson must follow open meetings law

-A A +A

Two complaints have been filed against the tourism commission

The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission are supposed to be the fun people in government. Lately, that hasn’t been the case.
Two of the last three meetings were plagued by closed sessions, talks of discipline or removal of Executive Director Nena Olivier, and personnel decisions were discussed when the public had the right to know what was going on.
The two closed sessions (one in the regular monthly meeting held on June 27 and another in a special-called meeting on July 7) were held under the umbrella of KRS 61.810(1)(f). The law states: “Discussions or hearings which might lead to the appointment, discipline, or dismissal of an individual employee, member, or student without restricting that employee’s member’s, or student’s right to a public hearing if requested. This exception shall not be interpreted to permit discussion of general personnel matters in secret.”
There are a few problems with the commission’s decision to go into a closed session based on that law.
First, during the July 7 meeting, Olivier objected to the motion, saying that based on her conversations with City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray, she had a right to a public hearing. A few minutes before the commission went into closed session, Olivier said, “I thought it had to be more specific because the employee had the right to a public hearing.”
Commissioner Ashley Higdon answered her saying (based on research), “I think that’s where I read somewhere, I don’t know which document that was in, if we discuss things then afterwards we would brief, come out of executive session and discuss openly what we discussed.”
In a later email, the Enterprise asked Higdon what research she was referring to and she responded, “I am not the chair of the committee and cannot speak on behalf of the committee.”  
There was some debate, mostly from David Winebrenner, who is the current chair of the commission, who advocated for the city employee in question to be allowed in the closed session with the commission. Ultimately, the commission compromised with Olivier’s objection, allowing her to sit in on 30 minutes of a more than two-hour closed session. (It should be noted that Olivier objected once again when she was asked to join the closed session.)
Following the closed session, a statement was read aloud indicating the commission did not discuss the discipline or removal of an employee, but rather they discussed general personnel matters in secret. The statement given by the commission said: “In the spirit of continuing to meet the needs of our growing tourism, the commission will seek an engagement with an executive coach, giving our office team the support they need to continue our success.”
So, the commission plans to hire an executive coach – something never discussed in an open meeting.
Either the commission discussed the discipline or removal of an employee and denied said employee the right to a public hearing, or the commission discussed general personnel matters in secret. Either case presents a violation of the Kentucky open meetings law.
In both the June 27 meeting and the July 7 meeting, it was presumed that the commission had gone into executive session to discuss the discipline or removal of an employee. We can only assume that the employee is Olivier, considering the fact that she was the employee pulled into the special-called meeting on July 7. If that is the case, we’re curious as to the commission’s reasons for discussing discipline or removal of Olivier.
According to the end of the year report, the 2015-16 fiscal year was record-breaking for tourism. The revenue this year was $438,999 versus $391,364 the year before. The economic impact grew to $27 million, up from $25 million the year before.
There are no records of complaints or actions taken against Olivier. To us, it doesn’t make sense for the commission to go into executive session to talk about disciplinary actions against her.
So, what exactly is going on here?
There has been no official record of why an executive coach is going to be hired. No one has said who that person will be or what role that person will play. Is it a temporary position? An outside hire? How much is this going to cost? We don’t know because everything has been discussed behind closed doors. As a result, two open meetings law complaints have been filed against the tourism commission, first by former news editor of The Lebanon Enterprise, Stephen Lega, and also by the Enterprise itself. (See the sidebar for the city attorney’s response to the open meetings complaints.)
We fully understand that there are circumstances that allow government officials to go into closed session. The law outlines those circumstances clearly. But, the commission violated the open meetings law in those two meetings. It’s time the commissioners let everyone else in on what they’re trying to do. And, maybe the executive coach could give the commissioners a refresher course on open meetings laws.

City attorney's response

In a letter responding to the open meetings law complaint sent by The Lebanon Enterprise, City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray agreed that there was a violation of the open-meetings law. She wrote:

After discussion with the director and several members of the commission, it is my opinion that a violation of the open meetings law may have occurred on July 7, 2016. Most of the members of the commission did not interpret Ms. Olivier’s questions and comments a request for a public hearing on the issue of employee discipline to be discussed in executive session however, there is no required incantation to invoke the right and Ms. Olivier’s comments could certainly be construed as an objection to the closed session. Ms. Olivier has since clarified to the commissioners that it was her intent to seek a fair and public hearing at the time. In order to be completely fair to Ms. Olivier and to be transparent in their deliberations, the commission will remedy any perceived violation as soon as practicable.
As you know, the remedy for this violation is the holding of a public hearing at the next meeting of the commission in open session at which the commissioners will publicly discuss the issue of employee discipline as it was originally discussed in closed session, affording Ms. Olivier the right to counsel and the right to present evidence. The commission will likewise discuss publicly their intention announced on July 7, 2016, meeting to engage an executive coach, including the motivation for that decision.