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October 8, 2008

Civic unrest

Why is the mayor’s office trying to keep employees of a downtown agency from running for office?

Ken Herndon is an energetic civic servant who has run in a handful of races for public office since 2002. But now it seems some powerful members of Metro government — including the office of Mayor Jerry Abramson — are trying to stifle the perennial candidate’s political ambitions.

Since Herndon narrowly lost a Metro Council bid in the Democratic primary last May — due in large part to a homophobic mailer that kneecapped his candidacy — there’s been a push to change personnel rules at his job to prevent him from running for public office again.

For 11 years Herndon has worked as director of operations at the Louisville Downtown Management District, a quasi-governmental agency established to promote the economic, residential and cultural vitality of downtown. Although LDMD receives a portion of its $1.3 million budget from taxpayers through Metro Council funding, it’s considered a private organization whose staff members are not subject to Metro employee policies.

“If I had won, I said to staff and board members that I would have quit my job,” Herndon says. The 6th district extends to cover part of downtown, and winning would have given him an automatic position on the LDMD board. 

“I would’ve essentially become my own boss,” Herndon says. 

Presently there’s no codified rule stating that LDMD employees cannot run for city office. And although he’s run for office before, and served briefly as county judge/executive, Herndon says this is the first time questions were raised about a possible conflict of interest.

In June, LEO Weekly reported that three weeks before Election Day, Metro Council President Jim King, D-10, sent a letter to Dan Kelleher, president of LDMD, raising a question about the legitimacy of Herndon’s candidacy. After reminding Kelleher that the agency’s budget required Metro Council approval, King — who donated $2,000 to the campaign of Herndon’s primary opponent, Councilman George Unseld — stated in the letter that he’d “received several inquiries” about Herndon, “an active employee … participating in a primary election as an opponent of an incumbent Metro Councilman.” 

After consulting with the county attorney’s office, however, King learned LDMD employees were not prohibited from seeking public office. In the end, he concluded the situation was a matter for the LDMD board.

Since then, LDMD has launched a review of its policies, focusing heavily on the right of employees to run for public office. Bruce Traughber, the city’s director of economic development, who sits on the LDMD Board of Directors as proxy for Mayor Abramson, is spearheading the review.

Obtained through an open records request, minutes from the July meeting of the LDMD Board of Directors reveal Traughber was the main proponent of amending personnel rules to forbid all employees from seeking public office. According to the minutes, Traughber said an employee challenger could prompt elected officials who approve the agency’s budget to withhold funding — which in itself seems to suggest some level of corruption. 

“I am convinced that it is a mistake for the organization to allow that to happen,” he said, according to minutes from the meeting. “And I would tend to vote against the whole handbook if that is in there.”

Responding to King’s letter in June, Traughber stated in a one-line e-mail to LDMD President Kelleher: “Metro policy prohibits a city employee from running for a council seat.” The policy he was referring to applies to city government workers, though, not LDMD.

In a previous interview, Traughber told LEO Weekly he was not recommending that the agency adopt a new personnel policy, but simply offering his opinion in response to King’s letter. Now it appears otherwise. 

“At this point we’re still investigating the pros and cons of changing the policy,” says Russell Smith, chairman of LDMD’s personnel committee. 

The current debate, Smith says, is over whether the same rules should apply to all LDMD employees, and whether employees should be allowed to run for political office and resign if successful. 

LDMD’s personnel committee was scheduled to hold a special meeting Tuesday to address its policy for employees running for public office. “I’m hoping we’re able to resolve it in the not-too-distant future,” Smith says.

Current Metro policy prohibits more than 7,000 city government employees from running for public office; however, an exception is given to Metro Council legislative aides because they are hired by individual council members, according to the county attorney’s office.

Abramson’s spokesman, Chris Poynter, says the decision to change personnel policies at LDMD is for their board of directors. Asked if Traughber was told by the mayor’s office to take the lead in changing LDMD employee rules, Poynter told LEO Weekly to talk to Traughber directly. The newspaper made four calls to Traughber’s office; he did not return calls by press time. 

Calling the policy “terribly restrictive,” Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, who co-chairs the oversight committee on government accountability and audit, says the city should make the rules uniform, allowing workers to run if they choose. Until then, the policy’s ambiguity and general message bars many qualified people from the leadership pool. 

“Anybody ought to be able to run for the Metro Council,” Downard says. “If not, what we’re doing is telling anybody who’s here who might know anything about city government, ‘You can’t run against us.’”

Downard says he is disturbed by the move to change the personnel rules at LDMD, which is not a considered a Metro agency. If severe conflict is an issue at any agency or organization, it should be investigated, he says, but the broader question of interfering with a person’s constitutional right to run for office is troubling. 

If LDMD changes its personnel rules, Downard says he would hold committee hearings to inquire why the mayor’s office pushed for a new employee policy.

“Something’s not right here,” he says. “Who’s trying to muzzle who? I don’t know what it is, but it’s wrong.”