The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky public agency

Sunshine Week

Andrew Henderson

While WKU students were soaking up the sunshine on the beach, journalists were basking in the rays of Sunshine Week.

Celebrated every March since 2005, National Sunshine week, from March 12 to the 18 this year, is celebrated in part thanks to the efforts of the American Society of News Editors. Sunshine Week is the time where everyone comes together to tout the importance of the right to public information.

Sunshine Week would not be possible if not for the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. At the federal level, FOIA, broadly defined allows any person the right to request access to federal agency records or information, save for nine exemptions. However, states also have their own open records laws.

According to a 2011 report published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Open Records Act in 1976. Under the act, all public records can be inspected by anyone, “except as otherwise provided.”

Every public agency is subject to the act, which includes state or local government officers, county and city governing boards, every state or local judicial agency and public universities such as WKU, amongst many others.

During my time at the Herald, I’ve reported on a handful of stories that have come as a result of records requests, or received a real boost because of them.

One story involved a former employee resigning from his position amidst allegations of fraud. This story relied heavily on a memorandum detailing an anonymous report filed through the university’s Ethics and Compliance Hotline.

However, a key part of the story was email correspondence I requested from the involved parties regarding the incident. As those involved declined to comment, this was my only other route to learning how the matter had been brought up and how it proceeded over time.

The story I relied the most heavily on open records was a story detailing the possible intellectual property theft of a WKU faculty member at the hands of Chinese Testing International.

This story involved a lot of records requests, and in retrospect, probably too many. Record requests should be seen as like a kind of seasoning, a few pinches are great, but if you pour the whole bottle, people will get suspicious if not outright annoyed.

The story hinged on an August 2015 memorandum detailing the situation from the university’s point of view. But an even greater find was email correspondence between involved parties and FBI agents.

If you’re really lucky, and the moon is just right, you’ll find a phone number and email address for an FBI agent, and you’ll call them, then they will tell you to call someone else, and that person will then decline to comment. Thus, completing the cycle of reporting.

Point being, open records are a heck of a thing if you enjoy holding the government accountable. If you don’t, and find yourself enjoying government running amok in the dark, closed door meetings and a veil of secrecy then that’s nonsense.

Those who fight against transparency are either comfortable enough in their power to think themselves above reproach, or they have something to hide.

Right now, the Herald finds itself embroiled in a rather contentious fight over public records as we speak. Now, I write all of this not to primarily galvanize your support for us in this battle, that’d be great too, but to let you know that you can request these records too.

Everyone has the ability to hold those in power accountable. You can find a template for a Kentucky records request here, if you’re reading online, as well as some additional resources for other agencies.

Want to know how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent during a certain fiscal year? Ask the Department of Homeland Security. Want to know the deep secrets of Mayor Bruce Wilkerson’s emails? Send something over to Bowling Green’s Public Information Office. Want investigative records from WKU for Title IX violations? Us too! Any public record you want from the university can be directed towards General Counsel Deborah Wilkins.

If you come across a record you’re not sure what to make, or want help finding something, then reach out to us, and we’d be happy to help in a mutual relationship of transparency.