During Monday’s meeting of the Southern Water and Sewer District, the commission took discussion of ongoing negotiations between the Southern and Prestonsburg City Utilities Commission behind closed doors.
In so doing, the agency cited the provision of Kentucky’s Open Meetings Act that allows that agencies to take discussions behind closed doors if the public discussion could impact the potential acquisition of real property.
In 2017, the Kentucky Public Service Commission approved a transfer of assets that transferred the sewer infrastructure Southern had in Wayland and Eastern and some water customers the district had along U.S. 23 in the Harold area to the Prestonsburg City Utilities Commission, with Prestonsburg paying more than $2 million, as well as providing Southern Water some equipment.
The two entities are currently negotiating “unwinding” that deal, however, something that will take time and discussion, certainly.
We understand that, sometimes, there is a need for discretion in deals, even those that involve public entities with officials who are appointed to do the taxpayers’ business. But we’re a bit concerned about the secrecy with which discussions on this matter are being conducted.
Again, both these agencies are public bodies and the business they conduct is done 100 percent on behalf of taxpayers and ratepayers. It’s vital that those on whose behalf this business is being conducted be involved in and aware of what’s going on.
In the cases where the public discussion could harm the ongoing negotiations, something anticipated by the Kentucky Open Meetings Act, then it’s proper that the discussions go behind closed doors.
But, if it’s just out of convenience or avoidance of bringing controversial topics or sentiments into the public discourse, then it’s not proper.
We’re not the only ones who pointing out the need for a public discussion.
In May, PSC Chairman Michael Schmitt expressed a similar sentiment about the negotiations and said the PSC must approve the unwinding of the asset transfer.
“So if you get to the point where maybe you’re unwinding something, maybe you ought to tell us or file something here so we can go through it in a public hearing and make sure that the public knows what’s going on everybody can evaluate the benefits and the burdens to each system,” Schmitt said during a PSC hearing on Southern Water in May.
We trust that these two bodies know their responsibilities under the law regarding what must be brought before the public and what can be discussed privately.
We’re just asking that they consider the need for the public to be involved in this process. After all, this is a deal that was apparently made initially to the detriment of those involved. Perhaps some sunlight could be just what’s needed to ensure that we’re not “rewinding” in 2021.