The executive director of a state agency who was fired without the knowledge of the agency’s governing board says her replacement with a campaign donor of Gov. Andy Beshear’s was politically motivated.
Donna McNeil was executive director of the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority from 2017 until she was fired by Dennis Keene, the commissioner of the state’s Department for Local Government and the chair of the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority’s board, in late December. He replaced her with Edith Halbleib, who was the Jefferson County Master Commissioner from 2010 to 2018, overseeing foreclosure sales, according to her LinkedIn page. Halbleib did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
In a personnel appeal, McNeil accused Keene of overstepping his authority by acting without the approval from the infrastructure authority’s board when he fired her — contrary to the bylaws and the board’s past practice — and hired Halbleib, who has ties to Beshear but little experience in water infrastructure systems.
Records show Halbleib gave the maximum donations allowable — $4,000 — to Beshear’s 2019 campaign. Her husband, Thomas Halbleib, is the mayor of Glenview and works at Stites and Harbison, the prominent law firm where Beshear worked before becoming attorney general and where his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, worked before and after his terms as governor.
Thomas Halbleib gave $4,000 to Beshear’s 2019 gubernatorial bid and served on Beshear’s transition team for the Finance and Administration Cabinet. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Keene, a former Democratic state representative, said before declining to answer additional questions that Beshear selected Halbleib to lead the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority.
Sebastian Kitchen, a spokesperson for Beshear, defended Halbleib’s hiring and McNeil’s termination in an emailed statement.
“Governor Beshear and his administration are focused on the infrastructure needs of communities throughout Kentucky and he is proud an imminently qualified attorney is at the helm of the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority,” Kitchen said.
He said Keene’s personnel decisions were proper, and added that Halbleib’s donations were not a factor in her hiring. Her husband was unaware she’d even applied for the job, Kitchen said.
McNeil’s attorney, Bernie Mazaheri, said the infrastructure authority board has sole authority to hire and fire the executive director. Mazaheri believes Keene, the chair of that board, broke the law by acting unilaterally.
Mazaheri said the decision to fire McNeil and replace her with Halbleib gives the unsavory appearance of politics taking priority over procedure.
“I think it’s a stain on the administration,” he said. “An unnecessary one.”
McNeil said she decided to appeal after the board didn’t respond to Mazaheri’s letter seeking a compromise: that she be paid until the board formally votes to remove her. McNeil was paid about $100,000 annually.
“This is of paramount importance because the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority Board ought, at minimum, to keep the appearance of non-partisanship and exhibit a desire to act within the bounds of the law,” the letter states.
McNeil appealed her termination to the state’s Personnel Board on Jan. 17, on the basis of political discrimination. She also claims the termination violated state law because it was done without prior approval from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority’s board of directors.
Halbleib’s salary isn’t yet available on the state’s online database.
‘It was very disrespectful’
The Kentucky Infrastructure Authority provides low-interest loans and grants to local governments for the construction and rehabilitation of water-related infrastructure.
The authority was created by the General Assembly in 1988 and is attached to the state’s Department for Local Government for “administrative purposes,” meaning they share office space and human resources staff. The 11-member Kentucky Infrastructure Authority board consists of cabinet secretaries and representatives from local government agencies and water associations.
Keene, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department for Local Government, is a Democrat who represented a northern Kentucky district in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 2005 until December 16. He resigned to take the government job; four days later, he gave McNeil a termination letter.
McNeil said she was cautious working in an administration that was changing hands from one governor to the next, but she didn’t expect to be fired when she was called in to meet with the newly appointed commissioner Keene.
It was late in the day on the Friday before Christmas, and she said he slid the termination letter across his desk without standing or saying much.
“There wasn’t even a ‘job well done,’” she said. “It was very disrespectful, in my mind.”
McNeil started working for the state government in 1986 as a mail clerk and eventually became an engineer, retiring in 2008 as an environmental control branch manager for the Division of Water, with a $13 million budget and more than 30 staffers. She was working for the Kentucky Rural Water Association as a compliance specialist when she left for the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority.
Her father drilled domestic water wells in eastern Kentucky and McNeil still remembers the “horrible” taste of the water her grandmother would draw from a nearby gas well.
“That stays with me,” she said. “It has instilled in me a desire to help citizens that need clean drinking water, potable drinking water and wastewater.”
McNeil is a registered Democrat, and was hired as the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority executive director during the administration of former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. She’s never donated to a political campaign. And she said she tried to keep politics out of her work with Kentucky Infrastructure Authority because the need for water is universal — regardless of political affiliation.
“I tried to stay very nonpartisan throughout my career,” she said. “But I could see that that probably worked against me, because I didn’t favor one party versus the other.”
Board Member: We Weren’t Involved But Should Have Been
Keene introduced Halbleib at the infrastructure authority board’s January meeting as McNeil’s replacement, according to meeting minutes. The board took no action on McNeil’s firing or Halbleib’s hiring.
David Voegele, the Oldham County Judge Executive and a member of the infrastructure authority board, confirmed the board had no role in removing McNeil from her post. But he thinks it should have.
“I don’t know exactly how that happened. I assume it was a wish of the governor,” said Voegele, who is a Republican.
Voegele said Halbleib was introduced “without explanation” at the board meeting.
“I would think the commissioner, at minimum, would bring a candidate to the board and ask for confirmation and explain to the board how the selection process was made,” Voegele said. “That’s the way you would think it would normally be done.”
State law does not explicitly address who has hiring authority for the infrastructure authority’s executive director, though it notes the board has the option to retain one. The infrastructure authority’s bylaws say the board may appoint an executive director at the recommendation of the board chair.
The Kentucky Infrastructure Authority board unanimously voted to approve McNeil’s hiring in February 2017 after she and other candidates were interviewed by a board sub-committee, and she was recommended by the then-board chair, Sandra Dunahoo, according to meeting minutes.
Mark Bunning represented the Finance and Administration Cabinet on the board when
McNeil was hired, and he was on the hiring sub-committee that interviewed her.
“That would surprise me that the board did not have a say in the hiring of the new (executive director),” he said. “That would be unusual from my perspective as a member on that board.”
The board is scheduled to meet again on Thursday. Halbleib’s hiring isn’t on the agenda.