The outgoing Frankfort City Commission’s effort to muzzle one of its own raises interesting legal, and even constitutional, questions that should be reason for the city to proceed carefully.
The proposed revision to the city’s ethics code, expected to be considered by the commission Monday evening, would prohibit elected officials from publicly disclosing anything said in a closed session of the board.
That generally accepted practice – which, as Mayor Bill May noted during a special commission meeting Wednesday night, has never been a problem in his decades of public service – was turned on its head by City Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge, who has aggressively challenged colleagues’ handling of City Manager Keith Parker’s dismissal.
Parker was dismissed in a 3-2 vote of the commission on Aug. 10 despite no prior discussion in open or closed session about his performance. The State Journal has formally asserted that the mayor and at least two commissioners violated the so-called “rolling quorum” of the state open meetings law, which prohibits elected leaders from hashing out public policy in individual conversations rather than in full view of taxpayers.
The newspaper’s case was strengthened when Waldridge publicly described the contents of a closed session preceding the vote to can Parker. Instead of discussing Parker’s performance and whether he should be fired, the board went directly to a discussion of how they would do it. If Waldridge’s account, which no one else in the room has disputed, is accurate, that means the decision was made before the board ever went behind closed doors. Just as The State Journal asserted in a complaint now being considered by the Attorney General’s Office.
Mayor Bill May and City Commissioner Eric Whisman didn’t take kindly to Waldridge’s divulging the board’s closed-door discussion, thus the effort to formally declare such behavior unethical and subject to penalty.
While we agree that such disclosures should be rare, latitude must be left for an elected official to blow the whistle on illegal or improper behavior behind closed doors. An airtight ban almost certainly would violate an elected official’s First Amendment rights, if not a state law that protects whistleblowers from exposing wrongdoing.
The current flap with Waldridge would not be an issue had the mayor and commissioners simply handled the dismissal of Parker the correct way: Put his performance and employment status on the agenda for a properly noticed closed session, let all members have a candid discussion of his performance and whether disciplinary action is merited, then return to open session and entertain a motion to dismiss, discipline or whatever a member’s desire.
Instead, the facts suggest that Parker’s critics secretly rounded up the votes (as confirmed by Commissioner Scott Tippett in a conversation with Parker), kept Waldridge completely in the dark and executed a sneak attack on a popular city manager. Waldridge blew the whistle.
Using the city’s ethics code to silence future whistleblowers is dangerous. The city should proceed with extreme caution.