December 16, 2008

WEB EXCLUSIVE: New metro ethics ordinance closer to passage

After a healthy debate that forged key compromises and amendments, the Metro Council’s Rules, Ethics and Appointments Committee voted unanimously today for a new ethics ordinance that will come before the council this Thursday.

"I think it’s a very strong, transparent ordinance that will hold people accountable for their transactions and activities," says Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, the sponsor of the ordinance. "It goes along with the theme that this government should be more open to the taxpayers."

Councilman Fleming introduced the 35-page proposal earlier this year to expand who is covered under metro ethics rules to include all policy makers, legislative aides and elected officials' advisers. The original draft also attempted to change the membership of the ethics commission from seven to nine people, and balance the appointment process by giving three appointments each to the majority caucus, minority caucus and mayor.

Fleming says the revised ordinance would keep the commission at seven and allow the mayor to make all appointments, like now, but requires a super-majority vote of 18 council members for approval.

"I don’t think a whole lot of ground was lost," Fleming says. "We were trying to get the minority voice, whether Democrat or Republican, in the decision-making as fair and equitable as possible without weighing one way or another from a particular party."

The new ordinance would also establish a 60-day timeline to investigate complaints and a minimum of three excused absences for members of the commission per year before they are replaced.

"It demonstrated that there are members on both sides of the aisle that recognize when you’re dealing with ethics and how we run metro government, we do it above politics," says Councilman David Tandy, D-4, who worked with Fleming on the ordinance.

During the committee meeting there was a brief discussion about the inclusion of legislative aides under the ordinance's definition of metro officers.

Councilman Bob Henderson, D-14, questioned if legislative aides should be included for ethics violations for small transactions they're allowed to make daily in the name of their bosses. Henderson said the wording leaves council members open to false accusations of political patronage from opponents.

I called Councilman Henderson's office for clarification after the committee meeting adjourned, but no one was available for comment.

The newspaper has covered Councilman Henderson's ethics challenges extensively. In 2004, Henderson was named in a complaint to the ethics commission during a whistle-blower case that involved the councilman, his legislative aide, Larry Mattingly, and the Metropolitan Sewer District. It took the commission four years to dismiss the complaint.

"We codified some of the understanding that many of us had already about what you could and could not do but put it in written form to make sure everyone knows those guidelines," Tandy says. "We now have an ethics ordinance that allows for a greater level of transparency and trust from the citizens of Louisville as to how metro government operates."

Councilman Fleming told LEO Weekly once the County Attorney's office puts together the language, the final draft of the ordinance will be sent to all council members Wednesday morning. Fleming says he's confident the ethics ordinacne will pass at the council's last meeting of the year.