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Public money, political gain questioned at Metro Council

by WHAS11

WHAS11.com

Posted on May 24, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 24 at 10:55 PM

(WHAS11) The top Republican on the Louisville Metro Council says the ethics charges against Councilwoman Judy Green should trigger a deeper reexamination of the council's discretionary spending policy.

"This is the time to do it," said Councilman Ken Fleming, Republican Caucus Chairman, " We need to go through it and scrutinize what we are doing."

And, Fleming  is also questioning the political gains of council members taking personal credit for grants of public money.

"We should not be put on a pedestal," Fleming said.

The ethics case against Judy Green centers on her rerouting of a city grant to other groups.  Yet, the ethics hearing investigator went one step further in his closing argument on Monday, questioning the use of tax dollars to promote a political agenda.

"That agenda is to be benevolent, to be seen in public, maintain office and to win and keep votes," said Jim Earhart of Green's discretionary spending.

But where is the line drawn?

Council members routinely reap positive press for their grants of public money, including the  sponsorship of community events and ticket purchases at galas, charity dinners and lunches.

Earhart suggested that Green was buying votes by using public money to purchase luncheon tickets for use by constituents. 

Fleming recalled one grant request which initially included the sponsoring council member being publicly recognized at the venue which was to benefit from the expenditure.  Though Fleming declined to identify the council member, he said other council members insisted that the public recognition be removed before awarding the grant.

Metro Councilman Tom Owen (D), the immediate past president of the council, said the questions posed by Earhart's comments are "thought provoking."

"First, err on the side of restraint," Owen said in an e-mail statement, "I do believe it's appropriate through newsletters and public meetings to tell the public how you spent the taxpayer's money.  We should not have things named for us and should not insist that our name be attached to a program or expenditure we support."

As council president, Owen referred the internal audit of the Metro Council’s business offices to the Government Accountability and Ethics Committee.  That commitee is working with the city's Office of Management and Budget to review Neighborhoood Development Fund (NDF) grant requests and monitoring policy.

After a March, 2011 Courier-Journal report revealed that Green directed the 100 Black Men group to reroute grant proceeds to other beneficiaries, Council President Jim King requested a new internal audit of NDF grants exceeding $5,000 for the last two years.

King has expressed concern about expenditures in the Cost Centers of council districts, and last week requested a legal opinion from the Jefferson County Attorney.  Of particular concern to King is the use of a metro government Kroger credit card to purchase debit cards awarded to certain constituents to "promote goodwill."

At every level of government, politicians bask in a taxpayer funded glow. 

"I think the first thing is not whether we get credit for things, because sometimes you do," said Former Congressman Ron Mazzoli (D), "but it's making sure it's in the confines of what I would consider decorous handling of the public's money."

The Federal Building in Louisville was named for Mazzoli after he left Congress.  Corbin, Kentucky named it's entertainment complex for Senate President David Williams after he secured funding for the arena.

It's a benefit of incumbency that politicians get a boost in name recognition.  The name of the sitting Kentucky governor is traditionally featured on highway signs welcoming drivers to the commonwealth.  Each branch location of the Jefferson County Clerk's office prominently displays the name of Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw.  Since Richie Farmer became Agriculture Commissioner, the size of the commissioner's name on fuel pump inspection stickers has increased.

It is not new.  The century old cornerstone at Louisville Gardens shows the names of politicians in office when the Armory was built.

The difference at the Metro Council - Fleming says - is when politicians expect the recognition in exchange for funding.

"We should not put ourself in a position of self-promotion, funding our ego, whatever the case may be," Fleming said.

Also at stake at the Metro Council is - if Council members surrender some of their discretionary spending - that leaves more power with the mayor.

Each council member has more than $200,000 at their disposal:

  • $30,000 Cost Center
  • $75,000 Neighborhood Development Fund
  • $100,000 Capital Infrastructure Fund

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