December 30, 2009

Jerry's kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

Despite being a freshman councilman, Brent Ackerson, D-26, proposed a handful of controversial bills and resolutions during his first year in office.

Ackerson sponsored an anti-litter ordinance aimed at regulating unsolicited written materials, namely the little green bags of ads delivered by The Courier-Journal. Despite being warned not to pick a fight with an institution that buys ink by the barrel, Ackerson went forward with the ordinance, which was ultimately approved. In turn, the newspaper unsuccessfully sued the city for violating its First Amendment rights.

The councilman also proposed a resolution asking the General Assembly to reduce the number of allowable consecutive terms for the mayor from three to two. Since then, Ackerson’s colleagues have drafted similar resolutions as part of a package for state lawmakers to consider. The young Louisville attorney says those resolutions have upset some city officials, sparking rumors that term limits might also be proposed for other offices.

“In a way I’m proud of that, because I think controversial issues are ones that should be dealt with,” says Ackerson, adding that the council should be doing more to pass legislation like the smoking ban and Fairness Ordinance. “Maybe I’m not the best politician in the world because I shouldn’t take on these issues that will make my peers and other folks mad at me.

“Call me psycho, man, but I want to do more. This year I’ve done some things, but there’s something in me saying there are bigger issues to tackle, and let’s make some things happen.”

In total, the 26-member body passed 214 ordinances and 242 resolutions that were mostly forgettable. Overall, however, the council took a more assertive role in running Metro government this year, even before Mayor Jerry Abramson announced he wasn’t running for a third term.

Council Democrats managed to get through another budget shortfall and pass a strong labor standards ordinance, which Tony Hyatt, Democratic caucus spokesman, says were among their greatest accomplishments this year.

In late 2008, Abramson proposed numerous cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of 119 Metro positions to fill a $20 million deficit.

“It was difficult laying people off, but tough choices were made, and working with the mayor — as far as the Democrats are concerned — to get through this fiscal year was essential,” he says.

Coupled with the possibility of an economic turnaround, Hyatt says the labor standards bill, co-sponsored by Rick Blackwell, D-12, and Jim King, D-10, raised awareness about the need to support area workers.

Council Republicans also are generally pleased with the progress of their agenda, which took noteworthy steps in terms of transparency and accountability. It can be difficult for the 10-member minority to be heard, which is why they are selective about the issues they bring forward.

“We have to build a stronger case each time and become a little more deliberate with the legislation we’re trying to get done,” says Steve Haag, minority caucus director. “We’ve always had to build a better case. It’s just now we have to work even harder to make our points.”

Earlier this year, Republicans made accountability a key point in the aftermath of the housing department scandal, which resulted in the director’s resignation.

When State Auditor Crit Luallen issued a blistering report outlining chronic mismanagement in the department, the minority caucus quickly piggybacked on a series of recommendations, which included a suggestion that the city adopt an anonymous hotline enabling citizens and city employees to report unethical activities.

The GOP successfully pushed a bill establishing the ethics reporting service despite resistance from the mayor. LEO Weekly reported that the idea of an ethics hotline had stalled in the Mayor’s Office for the past four years despite persistent recommendations by the city’s internal auditor.

In several interviews, the administration said the tip-line conversation had been ongoing, but there were a number of concerns, such as balancing the public’s right to know about complaints with protecting the reputations of the accused.

Council Democrats initially concurred, saying they worried about an avalanche of frivolous complaints.

Those doubts were addressed, and eventually the council unanimously approved the comprehensive reporting tool.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” says Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, who co-sponsored the ordinance. “The tip line was real transparency work that was accomplished. When we look at the tip line — as far as holding people accountable — it got the ball rolling.”

Other bills that opened up Metro government included an e-transparency ordinance that created a website to track city expenditures. The council also passed the open-books ordinance, co-sponsored by Councilmen King and Kelly Downard, R-16, which forces companies receiving city tax dollars to make their expenditures public.

The measure was drafted in response to the refusal of The Cordish Cos., developer and owner of Fourth Street Live, to show how they spent a $950,000 city loan intended to refurbish a downtown bowling alley in the entertainment district.

Though council Democrats had been criticized for rubber-stamping the mayor’s deal with the Baltimore-based developer, the majority caucus stepped up by outlining the legislative body’s authority in those contracts.

“Anyone who knows this caucus knows tough questions were asked and things were delayed this past year,” says Hyatt. “With The Cordish Cos., we just would like to know the end result of what you’re going to do with (tax) money and if you’re not going to use all of it or shift it to other resources.”

While a series of “Cordish laws” have been passed with bi-partisan support, there remains general disagreement between the two parties over the ethics ordinance.

In 2008, Democrats stymied the proposal while Republicans had expected it to sail through council. Since then another ethics ordinance has been introduced, and the debate has bounced around council chambers.

The only progress came near the end of the year when a work group of five council members, headed by Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, was formed to hammer out the details of the two opposing bills.

Despite this progress, differences remain. Repeating the same promises from last year, both parties say the council will debate ethics reform in early 2010.