A major provision in the controversial state bill that would rework elements of Louisville Metro government will likely be nixed in the coming days, despite having bipartisan support on the city’s Metro Council.
Senate Bill 222 sailed through the Republican-controlled state Senate last week and now heads to the House, also under GOP control. It’s one of several bills aimed at reworking aspects of local government in the state’s biggest city.
Louisville Democrats have criticized the measures as attacks on local control. Mayor Greg Fischer called SB 222 “an insult to Louisville voters” in an interview last week.
If approved, that bill would require the Metro Council to review all no-bid contracts costing more than $50,000 and allow the legislative caucuses of the council to obtain outside legal counsel, among other things.
The bill would also charge the council with establishing an oversight and audit committee with the power to subpoena witnesses, administer oaths and recommend the removal of city officials. That would, in effect, afford the council the ability to oust department heads or other officials within city government — a power that currently rests solely with the mayor.
Some council members favor that provision.
“Absolutely,” said Robin Engel, chair of the council’s minority Republican caucus. But he also stressed the need for an ethical process and just cause for removal of city officials.
“There’s got to be an ethical prospective behind this,” he said.
Councilman David James, a Democrat and chair of the public safety committee, also supports the provision. James’ committee regularly summons the heads of public safety agencies to City Hall, providing a public platform for council members to grill the police chief and, most recently, the city’s jail director.
Earlier this week, the public safety committee convened for nearly two hours to question jail director Mark Bolton about a range of jailhouse procedures. The meeting came amid calls from some local jail employee union members that Bolton should resign.
While James does not support removing Bolton, he did offer support for the council having such power.
“I don’t see that it would be a bad thing,” he said.
David Yates, president of the Metro Council, did not respond to a request for comment.
Local support may not extend to state legislature
Despite the show of solidarity from some Metro Council members, bill sponsors say that provision is on the chopping block.
Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican and former council member, said she expects an amendment will be made in a House committee to remove it. Adams, a cosponsor of the measure, said a “constitutional issue” arises when the city’s mayor is stripped of his authority to “hire his own people.”
“It’s his administration,” she said.
Adams said the provision was added in an effort to find a compromise with council members after controversy exploded over the idea that state lawmakers were stripping “home rule” from Louisville legislators.
Sen. Ernie Harris, a Republican from Prospect, agreed with Adams that hiring and firing of city officials should rest with the city’s mayor. Harris, also a cosponsor of the bill, said the council could retain an element of oversight of city officials through the provision that grants subpoena and investigative powers to the government oversight and audit committee.
“When you shine the light of day on different things you find out where the truth is,” he said. “That’s a good idea.”
Sen. Dan Seum, another cosponsor, did not return a request for comment.
Fischer has remained an outspoken critic of Senate Bill 222. He’s chastised state lawmakers for moving ahead with legislation without input from Louisville’s local elected leadership.
But Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter said in an email Tuesday that “significant improvements” are being made, including removing the provision that would allow council members to remove city officials. Doing so, he said, would keep intact the separation of governmental powers.
“The mayor should be able to choose his or her own staff, to hire and fire as he or she sees fit, based on the mayor’s knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of the staff,” he said.