By Jacob Ryan –
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer touts transparency and access as part of his governing philosophy and strategic plan for the city.
In his Citizen’s Bill of Rights, which promises that every citizen has the right to be involved in government, Fischer aspires “to create a culture of inclusiveness and maintain open communications with the community.”
But when it comes to his own daily happenings, Fischer isn’t as open.
There is no public record of guests or visitors to the mayor’s office, according to a WFPL News investigation that sought to find who might have private influence over the administration during a time of city budget planning. The mayor’s office also denied a request for any other documents that show the name of anyone visiting Metro Hall to meet with Fischer, when they visited and for how long.
This means there’s no way for the public to know who is getting face time with Fischer as the administration preps the annual budget — which he is scheduled to unveil later today — or formulates policy positions and initiatives.
In their denial of WFPL’s request, Fischer’s office leaned on a 22-year-old ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals that states any schedule or calendar is considered a preliminary draft and not open for public inspection.
“It is not an accurate record of what actually occurred and is subject to many changes and is never corrected,” Fischer’s office wrote in their denial.
Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Fischer’s office, said full disclosure of the mayor’s daily schedule could have negative ramifications for economic development interests.
The administration pulled primary economic developments functions away from Greater Louisville Inc., a public-private partnership, and under its own umbrella in 2013. That move raised concerns in the business community that some records related to economic development pursuits would be subject to open records laws and dissuade interest.
Poynter also said keeping visitor logs or sign-in sheets is not a priority in the administration.
“This mayor is one of the most transparent,” he said. “All you have to do is follow his Twitter feed and social media, and you can see what he’s up to every day.”
Fischer’s efforts to make government data more available to the public have drawn recognition and meant more information on the inner workings of city government is available than perhaps ever before. Anyone with an internet connection can look up city employees’ salaries, restaurant inspections and sidewalk repairs. Residents can see how many guns were seized by police, the location of construction permits, city park boundaries and more.
But the lack of transparency about who is meeting with the mayor day to day concerns advocates for accountability and transparency.
“The work of the city is the work of the taxpayers,” said Michael Bekesha, an attorney with Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit focused on accountability, transparency and integrity in government.
The group sued President Barack Obama in 2009 for access to White House visitor logs.
“The public has a right to know who the mayor is meeting with, what’s on his calendar, what work he’s doing on behalf of the taxpayers,” Bekesha said.
Without such knowledge, he said, residents don’t know who has a say in how policy is shaped and whether those people are experts, lobbyists or may have a financial stake in a given project.
Public Entry Point
President Donald Trump came under fire earlier this month when White House officials announced they would end public access to visitor logs. Disclosing such information, they said, could present a risk to national security.
Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called the move “a massive step away from transparency.” The American Civil Liberties Union said “the only reasonable conclusion is to believe the Trump administration has many things it is trying to hide.”
Visitor logs can reveal who top officials in any government — from Washington to Louisville — are meeting with and provide a window into the influences that drive political processes and budgetary allocations.
Fischer is set to present his proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year to the council today. Metro Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, vice-chair of the council’s minority Republican caucus, said the budget process is one that’s often cloaked in secrecy, as is the mayor’s process for selecting appointments to city boards and commissions.
“We don’t really know how he gets from point A to point B,” she said.
Louisville Metro government’s current annual budget is about $822 million. Some 60 percent is dedicated to public safety, while roughly $9 million is allocated for an array of external agencies, including nonprofits and community groups.
Parker said residents have a right to know who Fischer meets with, and refusing to disclose such information sends a message that the administration lacks transparency.
Moreover, she said not keeping a visitor log is troublesome “for security reasons.” Without such logs, she questioned how Metro Hall staffers keep track of who is in the building and when.
Councilman Bill Hollander, chair of the council’s Democratic caucus, said he has no opinion on the matter. Hollander was endorsed by Fischer in his campaign to replace longtime council member Tina Ward-Pugh for the hotly contested District 9 seat.
“I’d have to look into it,” Hollander said when asked if the public has a right to know with whom the mayor is meeting.
‘Open by Default’
Mayor Fischer is routinely in the public eye.
His office holds press conferences throughout the year, during which Fischer is often present. He joins other city officials and community leaders to cut ribbons, announce events and discuss issues like gun violence or the arts.
In fact, in 2015 Fischer’s office issued some 160 media releases, according to a previous review by WFPL News.
Fischer said then that his public appearances are guided by a “specific strategy” pinned to themes, like economic development and community engagement.
In 2013, Fischer signed an executive order making all public information “open by default.” This means any information not exempted from disclosure by state open records law is to be made available on the city’s open data portal.
Alex Howard, deputy director of The Sunlight Foundation, a group that has praised Fischer’s efforts to open local government to the public, said as technology advances so do opportunities to represent the governing process in structured data form.
Memoranda, agenda items and calendars can all be structured and eventually disclosed, Howard said.
“Any administration that is putting its shoulder toward being more open and accountable to the public will embrace voluntary disclosures of influence as part of making sure that transparency and accountability don’t just end with a policy, but are actually borne out in spirit,” he said.
Still, public officials worldwide shy away from disclosing information related to meetings on policy, Howard said.
Certain reasonable exemptions to such disclosures are acceptable when “genuine harm” is associated with disclosure, he said. For instance, that includes avoiding risk associated with presenting the location of a human rights activist or releasing intimate personal information, like Social Security numbers.
But in general, Howard said there is clear public interest in disclosing who gets a say in the shaping of public policy, including a city budget.
“It’s to everyone’s benefit to make sure as many people as possible are informed about what the government is doing in their name,” he said, “which includes meetings with all kinds of different people.”