Appropriations Chairman Seeks Ethics Opinion on Council Distributing Gifts

The chairman of the Louisville Metro Council’s Appropriations Committee is asking the Ethics Commission to weigh-in on whether city lawmakers can pass out gifts to constituents.

Earlier this week, the appropriations committee discussed a pair of Neighborhood Development Fund requests made by council members Rick Blackwell, D-12, and Vicki Welch, D-13. The two were seeking to give Metro Parks $3,000 in return for 400 tickets to performances at the Iroquois Amphitheater, which Blackwell and Welch would give out to residents.

The county attorney warned that tickets can have a “monetary value and political value” and lawmakers should discuss the matter further. After a fierce debate, the committee voted down the proposal by a 3-to-3 vote.

Councilman Robin Engel, R-22, who chairs the appropriations panel, sent a letter to the commission Friday asking if it is a violation of the city's code of ethics for council members to control the distribution of tickets. He says there has been a fierce debate on passing out tickets, but lawmakers need non-partisan guidance.

“The question is the temptation and the possibility of impropriety of being able to distribute tickets as a council member. That is in play here and that’ the question of the day,” he says.

Engel's letter also requests the commission rule on whether it is against the ethics laws for lawmakers to receive tickets to events and if there's a distinction between those purchases with public funds and those provided to council at no cost.

Council Republicans argue that lawmakers can support a venue without their offices handing out tickets to constituents directly. But council Democrats say they are trying to support community events and are following city rules, which do not bar them from receiving or giving out tickets.

Democratic caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt says GOP lawmakers are unnecessarily trying to politicize the issue of using public funds.

“We just went through a revision of the NDF grant policies (last year) and questions such as this did not come up,” he says. “Council Democrats are ready to talk about it in this case, but this is a practice that is being singled out and is something the council has been doing ever since there has been a council. A few members of our caucus do believe this is a little bit political in this case.”

The council has been under more scrutiny for discretionary spending due in part to an ethics complaint filed against Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin this month. On Thursday, attorney Aubrey Williams, who is representing Shanklin, filed a motion to dismiss the charges and he was granted a 10-day extension to file a response by the commission.

Engel says the council needs to reexamine all of their rules regarding discretionary funds, adding taxpayer's are concerned how money is being used given the removal of former Councilwoman Judy Green last year and Shanklin's ongoing controversies.

“The public’s trust is at hand and I will tell you that over the last several months, just in talking to my constituents that the pulse of our community is the fact that they do not trust Metro Government,” he says.

The ethics commission is scheduled to meet August 22.

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