Council Overrides Fischer Landmarks Veto

In a historic vote, the Louisville Metro Council rejected Mayor Greg Fischer’s veto of the landmarks ordinance by an 18-to-7 vote.

The legislation was aimed at changing several provisions of the way the city designates historic sites and structures. Among the amendments was a change to allow a majority of council members to halt a decision made by the Landmarks Commission for further review.

The mayoral veto was the second in Fischer's administration, and was the first to be rejected by the council since city and county governments merged.

For months, council members held public forums and debated the measure until it passed last week. But Fischer vetoed the bill at the urging of preservationists, who argued the amendments favor developers and endanger the city's heritage. In a letter to city lawmakers, the mayor said council members were overstepping their bounds and politicizing the process.

Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, voted for the ordinance and stood against the veto. He says the mayor admitted there were problems in the landmarks process and the council needed to step in due to a lack of oversight.

“We’re being told that the fabric of our heritage will be permanently diminished by providing oversight by this council. However, a review of the facts makes this seem a bit of a contradiction,” he says. “Even the mayor in his veto message admits the Bauer site might have been a mistake. Oversight was needed, but it wasn’t there.”

Critics of the bill highlighted that the council could approve or reject the mayor's appointments to the Landmarks Commission. In a letter to council members, the group Neighborhood Planning & Preservation, Inc. said the public forums showed the vast majority of constituents were opposed to the changes and that a work group assigned to review the measure was not transparent.

“Initiating change without justification, suppressing public opinion, ignoring conflict of interest, and misleading the public about it all demonstrate why many object to the amendment,” the letter read.

Before the vote, lawmakers traded sharp jabs about their support and opposition to the mayor's decision to block the ordinance.

Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, supported the mayor’s veto and has spoken out against the amendments since February. He says the landmarks process has worked for 40 years, and he compared the changes to a “wet blanket” that will politicize the city’s heritage.

“Why is it a wet blanket? Because as the landmarks commission negotiates and meets with owners who might be resistant to a local landmark designation, for the foreseeable future there will always be a the shadow of the political trump card that can be played by this council,” he says.

In the end, however, a majority of council Democrats and Republicans joined together and stood against the Fischer administration, with some citing the bipartisan agreement among lawmakers over Fischer's “arm twisting” and “power play.”

“When they formed this government for the merger it bothered me sometimes that we have a mayor that has quite a bit of power,” says Councilman Bob Henderson, D-14. “When you see both sides of the aisle come together like I've seen here, it's hard to say it doesn't count. I'm going to go against the mayor.”

Other changes to the landmarks ordinance require that at least 101 of the necessary 200 signatures to start the historic designation process come from the council district in which the building resides or a one-mile radius surrounding the site. It also increased how many residents and area business close to the historic structure who are notified about the process.

“I'm disappointed in the council’s action, but now is the time to move forward and work together—Landmarks Commission, council, and my administration—to implement the new law in such a way that will continue to preserve our rich history,” Fischer said in a statement.

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