May 23, 2007

Form follows function: We can create a Metro Ethics Commission with teeth. Here’s how

An army of clipboard-wielding signature-gatherers deployed last week to pull support for a clever new financing scheme to fund the expansion and renovation of the Louisville Free Public Library system: three new regional libraries, two new smaller ones, and 13 branches to be renovated or expanded. The current LFPL budget, provided by Metro government, won’t cover that. So LFPL wants to increase the occupational license tax by two-tenths of 1 percent and create a “public library district,” a quasi-governmental agency that would manage the percentage of your tax money earmarked for libraries. It would bring close to $40 million annually, costing a worker who makes $38,000 a year $76. LFPL needs 100 signatures in all 10 state Senate districts to score a ballot initiative this November. Mayor Abramson and Greater Louisville Inc. support the plan, which would also dislodge about $16 million in the city budget. It seems like a no-brainer: relatively little money per person to benefit a largely agreed-upon public good. With the right political encouragement, a similar but far less expensive scheme could be used to create and fund a salaried, independent Metro Ethics Commission. The body could pick up the heavier lifting that seems to trouble the current Commission: analyzing and investigating citizen complaints against government officials — elected, appointed, hired. While the current Commission has been solid in advising on potential conflicts of interest, its response to citizen complaints has been gradual at best. This would require virtually no effort, except from the officeholders whose political support is needed to suggest and pursue the idea — for instance, your Metro Council representative. It is cheap. It could be done in a year. Here is how. There are two basic ways to fund an independent, paid Ethics Commission. First, and perhaps easiest, is with a budget appropriation. Second is with a nominal tax increase. Like the Ethics Commission, the Metro Human Relations Commission is a Mayor-appointed body of volunteers (in this case, 17) with a paid support staff. Its budget last year was $1.032 million. The comparison could be instructive. Right now, the Ethics Commission is a 7-member panel whose support staff is woven into the Metro Human Resources Department. Metro could maintain the current volunteer Commission for the preventative: advisory opinions for Metro officers. To that it could add a new, five-person panel to exclusively address citizen complaints. Because investigating such complaints is demonstrably more complicated and time-consuming than anything else the Commission does, its members should be given the proper tools and time to do the job. This means paying them. There are more than 6,000 Metro employees, and the Commission is responsible for making sure none of them abuse their power. Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of them would or have defied the citizenry. But there are at least two pending complaints against Metro Council members. One includes the Metropolitan Sewer District, which until a judge’s ruling two weeks ago was subject to the same oversight that any Metro government agency is. Attorneys for the Commission have challenged the ruling, which leaves open the possibility that all sorts of quasi-government agencies — bodies whose budgets are approved by the Council but have separate governing boards, like MSD, the water company, TARC, the Public Library District — will no longer be subject to any oversight but their own. (This will be the subject of the Commission’s next public meeting, Thursday, May 31, at 3:30 p.m. at Memorial Auditorium.)Paying five people $40,000 a year costs $200,000. Budget another $30,000 for supplies (based on the Human Relations Commission model). It may be unreasonable to continue rolling the support staff into the Human Resources Department; as such, budgeting for clerical support would cost another, say, $35,000 a year in salary for one employee. That’s $265,000. There will certainly be other costs once things get going — let’s make the annual budget $300,000 to start, almost 0.02 percent of the budget windfall that Metro will experience if the Library initiative passes. The second option — a nominal increase in, for argument’s sake, the occupational license tax — would require each citizen making around $40,000 a year to spend roughly $7 more. Appointing the body — and avoiding the fox-and-henhouse scenario — is more vexing. One way is to have an open application process, from which a Council committee chooses eight candidates. From that list the Mayor chooses five, who must then gain Council approval. Involved in this process should be a definitive and impartial outside influence, perhaps a representative from the University of Louisville — much like the merger legislation tapped U of L’s Dr. Bill Dakan to draw the post-merger Metro districts. Chad Carlton, spokesman for Mayor Abramson, said the idea is interesting but, until a major ethical crisis, largely unnecessary. “The executive branch certainly falls under the auspices of the Mayor and the Council to be watchdogs over ethics,” he said last week. “Most of these agencies have ethics guidelines.” Carlton also mentioned citizen boards as a means of oversight. John Mason, chair of the Commission, said paying people could be problematic, and he defended the time the Commission has taken on citizen complaints — one has been before the body for over two-and-a-half years. He reiterated via e-mail that the Commission is working through the governing ordinance — which limits its investigative powers — and the recent court ruling to determine how to proceed. There are two ethics commissions at the state level: one for the executive branch and another for the legislature. Richard Beliles, director of Louisville Common Cause who lobbied in the mid-’90s for state ethics reform, said Louisville needs a stronger oversight body. Micah Chandler, a janitor at the VA Hospital, said he supports the idea of an independent, paid Ethics Commission, and would support using taxpayer money to fund it. In fact, more than a handful of people picked by LEO at random said the same thing — that taxpayer money should be used to create and fund an independent Ethics Commission. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com