March 6, 2013

Take me to your leader

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

A new work group recently assembled by Metro Council President Jim King will soon begin a series of meetings to tackle reform of Neighborhood Development Funds, the $75,000 in yearly grants council doles out to each district for local projects and organizations.

Such grants have come under fire in recent years for their lack of transparency and misuse in the wake of internal audits and the ethics hearings of Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, and former Councilwoman Judy Green.

While the council enacted modest and uncontroversial reforms last September, Councilman Jerry Miller, R-19 — who is on the five-member NDF work group — hopes the members can come together in a bipartisan way to ensure tax dollars are being spent wisely.

“We need to go through the (NDF) rules and make sure everyone understands what those rules are,” Miller says. “The only thing we’ve been consistent about is our inconsistency, and we need to be clearer on what is acceptable and what is not.”

Miller hopes to gain support for two NDF reform measures. First, while there is a general guideline that Metro funds cannot make up more than 33 percent of an NDF recipient’s operating budget, this is often ignored. Miller wants to establish a rule that sets an exact percentage that must be adhered to.

“Maybe it’s 40 percent, maybe it’s 49 percent,” he says. “But there’s some number out there that we ought to come to an agreement on.”

The councilman’s second reform measure will likely be a tough sell among the Democratic caucus, if not some of his own caucus. He supports expanding the list of ineligible activities for NDF grants to include non-governmental festivals, picnics and other social events, all of which are common.

“I know one or two (Republican) members who would probably not even vote for that,” Miller says. “It’s just that government money is something I think is not appropriate to be using for festivals.”

While most of Miller’s caucus would agree that such a use of funds does not constitute a legitimate public purpose, several Democrats took a public, symbolic swipe at one Republican’s use of NDF grants at last week’s council meeting.

Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, requested a $12,318 grant for the Landherr Estates Homeowners Association in his east Louisville district; the funds would cover nearly half the cost of constructing a new entrance, with the money going directly toward landscaping and utilities in the right of way.

In response, Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21, accused Kramer’s NDF of possibly being “illegal” and “criminal,” saying it was partly reimbursing Landherr for work on private property that was already paid for last summer. The city attorney, however, disputed that notion.

Council members Brent Ackerson, D-26, and Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, accused Kramer and other Republicans of a bit of hypocrisy, noting that they frequently point their fingers at Democrats for questionable NDF spending.

“My concern is that we’ve heard (Kramer) for years now say … funds should not be spent for these sorts of activities,” Ackerson said. “And yet tonight, we see a 180-degree turn.”

While Kramer has supported making homeowner associations ineligible for NDF grants in the past, he noted that such efforts never became law, and he would still be open to that discussion. Additionally, Kramer pointed out that he and many of the same Democrats criticizing him have routinely sought and approved similar NDF requests in recent years, which rarely receive any debate or controversy.

Councilman Miller tells LEO that such pushback from Democrats was simply grandstanding — or a “vendetta,” in Johnson’s case — in advance of the future negotiations on NDF reform, noting that Kramer’s request passed easily by a 23-1 vote.

“I applaud President King for playing the mediator and trying to get something done without the periodic public displays of posturing,” Miller says.

•••

Last month, Metro Council appeared ready to pass an ordinance that would give the Metro Ethics Commission new subpoena powers, the lack of which has hampered its efforts in the aforementioned Barbara Shanklin hearing. However, despite the support of Mayor Greg Fischer and leadership in both caucuses, Democrats stalled the ordinance in committee, fearing it would give the commission too much power.

While the council has been slow to act, the General Assembly now appears close to moving this effort forward without them. SB 117, sponsored by Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, was passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and on Monday was unanimously passed in the House Local Government Committee.

Councilmen Miller and Kramer tell LEO they are hopeful the House will soon give the bill full passage, as it has the strong support of Democratic Reps. Larry Clark and Steve Riggs of Louisville.

•••

Louisville was already forced this year to strip its ordinances of any gun control language by a law passed in last year’s General Assembly, and now it appears likely that Frankfort will gut its 14-year-old fairness ordinance protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination.

Last Friday, the state House passed HB 279 by an 82-7 vote, which would allow Kentuckians to violate a law if it goes against their religious beliefs. LGBT rights advocates fear the law could allow Christians to discriminate against LGBT persons in employment, housing and accommodations, even in cities where that is prohibited by local law, such as Louisville.

“The way that it’s written — very broadly without any sort of exemption for established civil rights protections — it absolutely could be used to override all of the local statutes in Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco,” says Amber Duke, communications director for the ACLU of Kentucky. “I think for a lot of folks, it’s like ‘Oh, religious freedom,’ and it’s really a misnomer.”

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, says the only hope to stop HB 279 is for the conservative Senate to add an amendment specifically exempting the violation of local fairness ordinances from the scope of the law.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Leader Damon Thayer did not respond to LEO’s request for an interview.

Mayor Fischer’s spokesman tells LEO the mayor is “concerned” with the law and is “reviewing it,” while a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear says the governor will “review it thoroughly to weigh its impact and understand any potential unintended consequences.” However, even a (very) hypothetical veto from Beshear would likely be overturned, as that would only need a simple majority in both chambers.

Russell Weaver of the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law tells LEO that the legal precedent to protect LGBT rights from such a law is not nearly as strong as protection from discrimination based on race and gender.

“The question is whether society is changing its views on sexual orientation enough that we would say, ‘Yes, we regard that as a compelling governmental interest,’” Weaver says. “But I just can’t answer that at this point.”

There’s even the possibility that people of non-mainstream (or suspiciously new) religious beliefs could claim protections under the law to do anything from smoke pot to not pay taxes, which could give those same state legislators the holy terrors.

•••

To the surprise of no one, the conservative state Senate easily passed SB 129 last week, which would allow Kentucky to nullify any new gun legislation enacted by the federal government.

While this bipartisan group of senators certainly pandered to the misinformed paranoia that President Obama has a secret plan to confiscate guns, the chances of such a law passing constitutional muster are extremely slim.

While Democratic Sens. Gerald Neal and Morgan McGarvey of Louisville gave passionate speeches on the Senate floor against the ignorance and unconstitutional nature of SB 129, one of their Democratic colleagues from back home surprised many by voting for the bill.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel — despite representing a liberal district where both Obama and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth perform well — was one of the 34 senators to vote in favor of the nullification bill to protect us from the gun-grabbing Obama and his imaginary federal minions.

However, in a phone message to LEO, Harper Angel says she is actually against the bill, which is grossly unconstitutional, and only voted for it to avoid a political “trap.”

“(SB 129) was really just a political gotcha vote that the Republicans put out there for us,” says Harper Angel. “State supremacy, you understand that actually means nothing, and I wasn’t going to fall into their trap.”

But why wouldn’t Harper Angel, from a relatively safe Democratic district, just stand up and speak out against the terrible bill like her colleagues McGarvey and Neal? She also added: “I have a very diverse district, as well.” 

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