Open Government: From obvious defeat to one of the nation’s strongest laws

A Tribute to Hall of Fame inductee Steve Lowery

Seeing that the late Steve Lowery will be inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame brought back some memories of the KPA Past President. Look around KPA and you’ll find Steve’s fingerprints on a lot of what KPA is and what KPA has.

There’s a story elsewhere in this week’s On Second Thought about the seven who will be inducted into the HofF on March 25 but allow me to share some Steve Lowery stories.

I’m going back to about 1988 when a discussion began on Kentucky’s Open Meetings and Open Records law, especially on Open Meetings. We were finding that public agencies were skirting many of the laws with innovative, and thus illegal, ways to get around compliance. As the discussion grew, we learned from newspapers across the state all kinds of horror stories about problems with public agencies.

David Hawpe was vice president of KPA at the time and I had made the comment to him that an organization ranking Open Government laws had deemed Kentucky’s laws to be the 23rd best in the nation. In other words, only average when it came to the strength of ensuring open access to the press and the public. Hawpe relayed my observation to Jon Fleischaker, father of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws and let’s just say that didn’t sit well with Jon. Paraphrasing his response to Hawpe, “Thompson is off his rocker. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I was just relaying what a national group had said about Kentucky’s laws, not stating an opinion or degrading the laws myself.

But around that same time, we started talking about the problems newspapers were having and how to address them. There were numerous meetings between 1988 and 1990, with an eye toward rewriting the laws. We took a “wish list” of language that the group wanted in the laws, put them together and started searching for a legislator to be the sponsor for 1990. I can’t cite chapter and verse because the online Legislative Records only go back to 1997. But here’s what I do know.

The two bills, with consecutive numbers, were assigned to the House State Government Committee. The committee met during the 1990 session in one of the smallest rooms in the Capitol Annex. Today, it’s someone’s very small office. The room was packed; four or five KPA representatives and the rest were city and county association staff members and university representatives. All were there to fight KPA”s language.

Rep. Jim Bruce was a member of the committee, a usual supporter of Open Government, and I think Rep. Ramsey Morris was chair. But this day, it was obvious our rewrite legislation was not going anywhere. In fact, had a vote been taken, it would have been soundly defeated. After the meeting, Rep. Bruce came up to us and said, “The only way you all are going to get this through is to let us study it during the interim and come back in 1992.” Defeat or delay? That was our dilemma. We convinced David Hawpe, who by then was president of KPA, that sending it to a study committee and coming back in 1992 was the only chance we had.

Reluctantly, we let Rep. Bruce know that’s what we wanted to do and he introduced a resolution that a Legislative Task Force be formed to study the Open Meetings and Open Records laws and to come to the 1992 session with language to rewrite both.

We’d already spent close to two years in discussion among ourselves but getting a legislative task force involved proved to be a godsend. The resolution passed the House and it appointed Rep. Bill Donnermeyer to be the co-chair from the House. Sen. Albert Jones, D-Paducah, was named co-chair from the Senate side. Rep. Ramsey Morris was also appointed as was the State Rep from Casey County. Can’t remember his name right now but I do remember he only wore cowboy boots.

Anyway, two KPA representatives were named to the Task Force: Stan MacDonald from the Courier-Journal and Steve Lowery. Jon Fleischaker was also named as the advisor to the committee because he was, after all, father of the laws dating back to 1974 and 1976.

From obvious, overwhelming defeat if we had pushed the laws in 1990, to near unanimous support for the new laws in the 1992 session. And Rep. Donnermeyer went from almost anti-open government to one of our biggest supporters in following years. In fact, none of us were happy to see Donnermeyer named co-chair. We didn’t think it had a chance of passage. But he stood strong once he learned what the problems were and how those needed to be addressed. He often helped knock down the volleys from the cities, counties and universities that if the legislation became law it would be bad for the way they conduct business.

Steve, Stan, Jon and others were instrumental in passage. How good was the language? Well, if we were 23rd best in 1988, by the mid-1990s that same ranking group put Kentucky’s laws as in the top five of all open government laws in Kentucky.

A simple question led to the internship program

It was the 1992 or 1993 Summer Convention in Pikeville. The KPA Board was meeting off-site, at an Asian restaurant, and the discussion got to the item about the KPA scholarship program. It was a simple update about the five scholarships being offered to incoming freshman for that Fall semester.

Steve Lowery asked one question: “Do we know where previous scholarship recipients are now?”

No, was the answer. We’d never thought of tracking them after graduation. yet we were giving them $1,000 scholarships per year, renewable for as long as they stayed in college.

But from Steve’s question, we did track previous recipients. I was able to get 58 names of students who had received scholarships since I began in 1983. And of the 58, with the help of the universities, we found FOUR were in the newspaper business. One was in Alabama, one was in South Carolina and two were in Kentucky. The other 54 had taken our money and run — to law school, to be teachers, to get into radio and one of the best of the 54 was a clerk for JC Penney in Northern Kentucky.

That simple question and the results of researching those 58 recipients gave way to an internship program that began in 1994. And today it’s one of our most successful programs because it benefits newspapers AND encourages students to consider a career in newspapers.

Creating a Legal Defense Fund

Steve had been in a battle with the Bardstown/Nelson County ambulance service over access to ambulance run records. It was an ongoing battle because the ambulance service refused to make the records available. Appeal after appeal, Steve and the Kentucky Standard fought. And finally won.

During a Board meeting, Steve talked about Landmark Community Newspapers, owners of The Standard, and its role in the battle. “Had it not been for Landmark, I would not have been able to fight the ambulance service. As a public agency, it had all that public tax money to spend on fighting me. Landmark didn’t have to defend me but it did.”

It made Steve wonder about other newspapers, specifically ones not under a corporate umbrella. He had no doubt an independently owned newspaper would have given up the fight immediately, instead of fighting the battle, all because of the cost. Public agencies won’t think twice about using tax money to fight newspapers. But newspapers don’t have the financial support to do the same.

From that, we developed the KPA Legal Defense Fund. It began August 1, 1996, and today is another of the successful programs offered to our members. To date, KPA has reimbursed participating newspapers some $800,000 in funds from the LDF.

And one not so positive remembrance about Steve Lowery

Again, it was a Board meeting that this took place. It was 1992 or 1993, in the basement of our current office when we could have board meetings here. This was not a pleasant discussion as such but ends with irony.

Our sales director Gloria Davis had told me that working late at night, she has to stop several times because of the phones ringing. After hours. So we decided to ask the Board’s permission to get a voicemail system.

I had gotten some quotes and presented those with the discussion. The voicemail would only operate after 5 p.m. I wanted our system answered by a real person, not some recording, during working hours. And I still don’t like calling a business today and being greeted with a recording. I want to speak to a real live human.

Anyway, I assured the Board we would not use it during business hours. But Steve wasn’t buying it. He said he, too, is against voice recordings greeting callers and thought it was a terrible idea to get a voice mail system.

The Board took a vote, it passed with Steve casting the lone “no” vote and then he stormed out of the meeting, mad that the motion passed. He was not at all happy but I never brought up the subject to him, asking why he was so opposed. I figured it best to leave well enough alone.

But it wasn’t too many months after that that I needed to call Steve at the Kentucky Standard.

Here’s the irony of it all. The phone call was answered but not by a person. It was a male voice, “Thank you for calling The Kentucky Standard….” I thought here’s Steve fighting for a real person to answer the phone at KPA and now his newspaper is using a voice greeting for every caller.

Steve Lowery has his thumbprint on so many of the programs and services we offer. Many of them. But not the voice mail system for callers.

 

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