December 22, 2010

Jerry's kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

Looking back at 2010 …

After narrowly losing the race for mayor of Louisville, outgoing Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, R-19, is proud of the assembly’s legislative accomplishments over the past year.

Among the highlights was the passage of an ordinance that tightened the city’s code of ethics. For nearly two years, council members were embroiled in a contentious debate that fell along party lines, with Republicans seeking to broaden the law and Democrats trying to streamline the complaint process.

After stalling in different committees, a bipartisan work group was able to reconcile partisan disagreements, and the council unanimously approved the measure in March. Specifically, the revised ethics ordinance expanded the number of people covered by the law, established how quickly the Ethics Commission must make a ruling, broadened what political activities are considered a violation, and set a time limit for when ethics complaints must be filed.

“Like transparency, a strong ethics law is foundational to any government,” says Heiner, who served as minority caucus chairman. “If you look at the dozen items of significance that were debated and passed this year, it’s going to be a strong ethics bill that defines the rules we operate under that will be remembered 20 years from now.”

At its last meeting of the year, the council bid farewell to Heiner, who had to relinquish his seat to run for mayor, along with Councilman Doug Hawkins, R-25, who lost his bid for re-election to Democrat David Yates.

The East End Republican is leaving after serving eight years on the council, but indicated that being out of Metro government doesn’t mean he’s retiring from public life.

“As a result of the campaign I’m loaded up with ideas around issues that I feel like we can make progress on, and that’s not going to go away quietly,” Heiner says. “I’m actively seeking areas right now to be in involved with. One that goes right to my heart is education, and I know we can do better here in Louisville. I don’t know if there will be any opportunities as time goes on, but that’s a place I hope to help in the future.”

Overall, the council was more assertive as outgoing Mayor Jerry Abramson entered lame duck status, even though most of their decisions were eclipsed by a closely watched mayoral campaign.

In total, the 26-member body passed 266 ordinances and 331 resolutions this year, marking its largest bundle of legislation since city and county governments merged.

The most talked about non-binding resolution was the council’s opposition to tolling the city’s existing bridges and roads as a means to pay for the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project. Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, spearheaded the measure in response to growing anxiety over financing the project.

The resolution called the prospect of placing fees on Louisville’s current transportation infrastructure a “flawed policy” that it is “fundamentally wrong” to force upon residents. The measure added that the Ohio River should serve as a point of unity for the region, “not as a barrier dividing the metropolitan area,” which has been a chief argument among the project’s critics.

Since handing power over to the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority last year, council members have heard numerous complaints about tolling options and were prompted to speak up after the city council in New Albany condemned tolling.

Another bipartisan effort was the campaign to crack down on deadbeat landlords.

In September, the council published the names of 262 individuals and businesses that owed the city a total of $17 million in fines for code violations. The Department of Inspections, Permits and Licenses compiled the list, which appeared in The Courier-Journal. The paid advertisement was an initiative led by Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, in response to repeated complaints by constituents about delinquent property owners whose houses were either abandoned or overrun with junk and overgrown grass.

“I don’t want to say shame is the greatest tool, but it hasn’t hurt to be quite honest,” says Democratic Caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt. “Since publishing the list, IPL has told us that they’re getting a better response with people looking to see if they are in violation. There are now people looking to see if they can take care of the fines.”

Since the ad, the amount of collections per week has increased by about $600 on average, and more delinquent property owners are making the effort to pay fines and clean up their properties, Hyatt says.

The council was criticized in the local press, however, when it was learned that at least one property owner who spent two decades rehabilitating homes was wrongly put on the list.

“There are still a lot of property owners out there with multiple violations. It’s always a story to have the one person who says, ‘I was unjustly put on the list,’ but what about all these other folks,” says Hyatt, adding that the mistake won’t deter the council. “The council has decided it is going to take some significant action on this issue and explore all of its options. Publishing the list is just a start. We’re going to be paying attention to this for the long haul.”

For all the initiatives and laws that were passed, city lawmakers never anticipated having to fill the 6th District seat of George Unseld, who died suddenly after collapsing in his office just before a June council meeting.

“Losing a dear friend and a colleague like that was very difficult. That definitely had an affect on us as a group,” says Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5. “I recall a lot of us weren’t feeling comfortable with the short time frame that we had to appoint a replacement after such a tragedy. Before something like this happens again, I believe we’ll want to look at that process.”