EKU's waste of funds, goodwill;
fighting open-records law a mistake
This from the Herald-Leader:
Kentucky taxpayers invested $33 million to build a performing arts center at Eastern Kentucky University, a public university. EKU hired Debra Hoskins to manage that center at a salary, on the public payroll, of $108,000 a year.
Yet, when things went bad between EKU and Hoskins, the university insisted documents about her dismissal/resignation and the issues that led up to it shouldn't be open to that taxpaying public.
Both Hoskins and the university relied on the remarkable legal argument that a confidentiality agreement the two parties agreed to at the time of her departure (a $76,591.04 settlement plus "other considerations" paid by, guess who?) trumped the state's open-records law.
When the Herald-Leader's Rich Copley asked for documents related to the separation, Hoskins and EKU didn't want to release most of them. When the attorney general's office, which has the responsibility for interpreting open-records law, agreed with the paper and ordered that the documents be handed over, they still weren't convinced.
So they contested the order to release the documents in court, where they again lost.
Thankfully, under Kentucky's good open-records law, they never had much chance to win.
Still, EKU burned up yet more public resources — its own and those of the courts — by contesting the inevitable.
The money and time spent on this are bad enough, but the most disturbing aspect here is that a university — a place that exists ultimately to teach people to question, to examine, to debate — took as its first line of defense denying answers to legitimate questions.
EKU, of course, is not alone in its tendency to seek refuge in stonewalling when bad or embarrassing news arises.
The University of Kentucky is contesting an attorney general's order to respond to a request for information by suing a reporter at its own campus radio station.
What's the message to students from these stories? Leave your curiosity in the classroom where it can't do any harm?
What is the message to taxpayers? Just pay the bills and we'll tell you what we think you need to know?
When Madison Circuit Judge William G. Clouse Jr. ruled that EKU must turn over the documents, he wrote, "the public has a right to confidence in its institutions and the people that make decisions," and the way to gain that confidence is "to understand what happened."And this:
A new president, Michael T. Benson, will soon take over at EKU. As will happen for anyone who ever runs an organization the size of EKU, sooner or later something will go wrong under his watch. When it does, let's hope he remembers Clouse's wise words.
The public can't have confidence in the institution unless it can understand what happened. It's advice the presidents of Kentucky's other public universities should also take to heart.
Judge: EKU must release most records related to Hoskins' tenure at arts center
Madison Circuit Judge William G. Clouse Jr. ruled Tuesday that Eastern Kentucky University must release the majority of documents the Herald-Leader is seeking related to the departure last June of EKU Center for the Arts director Debra Hoskins.The university and Hoskins have 14 days to appeal the ruling or produce the documents.
After the hearing Tuesday morning, in which attorneys for EKU, Hoskins and the Herald-Leader went through the contested documents, attorneys for the university and Hoskins said they had not decided whether they would appeal the rulings.
Hoskins was present at the hearing but did not speak.
Included in the documents was a June 12 letter from Skip Daugherty, executive assistant to EKU President Doug Whitlock, listing reasons the university was moving to fire Hoskins.
"If you read that letter, clearly and plainly the intent was Mr. Daugherty was saying to Ms. Hoskins, 'We're going to fire you, but if you want, you can choose this other action,'" Clouse said. "To my mind, that was final.
"These other letters may be a series of final actions that supplement this final action. This is the one letter, the one place I can find that clearly takes the administration view on the grounds for releasing Ms. Hoskins."
EKU's attempt to dismiss Hoskins was blocked by the Center for the Arts' community operations board, which said only the board had authority to terminate the director's employment. Hoskins resigned shortly after EKU's attempt to fire her.
Hoskins and attorneys for EKU said the letter was superseded by Hoskins' resignation, but Clouse said, "This is what the public record is all about."
The Herald-Leader sought a variety of documents relating to Hoskins' tenure in managing the brand-new, $33 million publicly financed arts center. The university produced a portion of the documents, primarily financial in nature, but withheld many others, citing a confidentiality agreement with Hoskins.
In October, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway's office ruled that confidentiality agreements do not trump the open-records laws, and EKU initially said it would release the documents. University officials reversed themselves shortly after that, saying the agreement compelled the university to fight any disclosure of the documents.
In Tuesday's hearing, the university and Hoskins' attorney reasserted their contentions that disclosure of the documents would constitute unwarranted invasions of Hoskins' and others' privacy.
Clouse, however, said, "Being embarrassed is not grounds enough" to withhold records covered under the open records laws.
"The court's feeling is the public has a right to confidence in its institutions and the people that make decisions," Clouse said. "This type of document, while it may be embarrassing for your client, is important for the public to gain that confidence in their institution — to understand what happened."
The attorneys agreed that when records are released, names of students and lower-level employees and any revealing information about them would be redacted. But the names of a "whistleblower" and decision makers, including board members, executive staff and university officials, would not be struck.
In March, the university and Hoskins released a number of documents that revealed pervasive concerns about Hoskins' management of the center, including mishandling of customer credit card information and misuse of information from her previous employer, Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
Hoskins has disputed many of the accusations in the documents, including deliberate underpayment of artists.
In Tuesday's hearing, Clouse and the attorneys agreed that several documents being sought were favorable to Hoskins.
The court ruled in the Herald-Leader's favor on the majority of the documents, but Clouse decided against the Herald-Leader's assertion that EKU had not acted in good faith regarding the Open Records Act in crafting its agreement with Hoskins.
"Eastern has made every effort today to be understanding of the court's rulings," Clouse said.
He said the crux of the argument was whether the resignation or attempted termination of Hoskins was the "final action," and although he determined that it was the attempted termination, he said, "Eastern took a position it thought was well-founded in the law, and I cannot find that they acted in bad faith."