In the wake of the removal trial of Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, the Louisville Metro Council is now set to begin tackling reform of the government funds at the root of both her scandal and that of late Councilwoman Judy Green preceding her.
Three weeks ago, Shanklin was found guilty by the Council of misusing $85,000 worth of Neighborhood Development Funds (NDF), yet fell one vote short of being removed from office, to the surprise of many. Each Council member receives $75,000 per year in NDF money to use for public purposes, though the Shanklin and Green cases shined a light on the potential for abuse and favoritism with the funds, as well as the lack of strict oversight.
While a five-member work group has privately discussed NDF reform measures to address these weaknesses since the beginning of this year, members of both parties on the Council have now begun to publicly jockey over the specifics of such reform.
On Aug. 8, Councilman David Yates, D-25, announced he would soon reveal “sweeping changes” to NDFs, irking Republicans who considered this move an “attempt to get headlines” and interrupting the reform process.
Last week, eight members of the Republican caucus held a press conference across from City Hall in which they followed through with specific details for NDF reform, pledging to personally abide by their proposals whether or not they are passed by the full Council.
While there’s room for agreement with Democrats on some of their NDF proposals, disagreements are also apparent. Democrats still have a large majority on the Council, thus will likely determine the ultimate scope and strength of reform going forward, as the Council tries to win back public trust.
At last Thursday’s press conference, Councilman Jerry Miller, R-19, said that his Republican caucus would continue working with Democrats who were serious about reform, “but we will not remain silent any longer and wait for our colleagues to act.”
Their wide range of reform measures includes: 1) expanded definitions of relatives for disclosure purposes to avoid nepotism, 2) prohibiting the transfer of money from a member’s Capital Infrastructure Funds ($100,000 per year) to their NDF account, 3) prohibiting NDFs from providing more than 25 percent of an organization’s budget, and 4) prohibiting NDFs going to employee bonuses, individual scholarships and constituent meals (unless volunteers perform a public service when fed).
But the main Republican proposal is a limit of $15,000 annually that a Council member can direct to “non-capital projects,” with Miller emphasizing Louisville’s desperate need to improve sidewalks and roads throughout the city.
Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, who ran for office pledging to not use NDF money on her district, said this $15,000 limit “requires them to really prioritize their spending. A festival may not be a priority when you’ve only got $15,000 of non-capital spending.”
Miller added that the eight Republicans present that day pledged to abide by these proposals, “even if (they) are not voted into place by our colleagues.”
Following the press conference, Councilman Yates noted that many of the Republican proposals were the same as those discussed in the bipartisan NDF work group, but expressed “shock” that Republicans had sprung new proposals that had not been heard before, specifically the $15,000 limit on non-capital projects.
“It’s not fair for me to say it’s more important to invest in sidewalks than it is to invest in police overtime in your district, because I don’t know what kind of battles they’re undergoing,” said Yates, who implied that Republicans were engaging in the same “political grandstanding” they accused him of a week earlier.
Shortly afterward in the Democratic caucus meeting, Council President Jim King, D-10, called most of the Republican measures “innocuous” and work group rehashes, but also took issue with the $15,000 limit.
“I believe they think capital projects are superior to anything else,” said King. “I think as a whole, many of the Democrats believe neighborhood associations and social service organizations that are community building are just as important and have maybe a longer lasting effect than putting in a curb or a sidewalk.”
Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3 — who noted that most Democratic districts are less wealthy and more reliant on nonprofit grants — expressed skepticism at Republicans’ motives, telling her colleagues, “I truly hope that we will not play into the hands of these Republicans … They want NDFs gone and done away with, and I hope we’ll be smarter than that.”
While divisions within the Democratic caucus still exist on the scope of NDF reforms, Republicans are not completely united either. Councilman James Peden, R-23, told LEO that he did not sign onto the Republican NDF pledge because he did not want to abide by a long-term commitment if the measures failed to pass.
“I was not willing to do that,” said Peden. “I think we should treat everybody the same. I don’t want to put my district, or any of the organizations, at any kind of disadvantage.”
Peden said he’s not against a non-capital project limit in principle, though he does feel the $15,000 limit is too low, and this takes away a Council member’s flexibility to direct funds to an organization when “a very legitimate need arises.”
Noting the rather “disingenuous” public posturing on both sides of the aisle, Peden said, “They’re all in a hysterical state right now after the Shanklin trial results … I don’t think they’ll just let (NDF reform) die, mostly because the Republicans won’t let this die. Therefore, the Democrats are kind of forced to address it.”
Councilman Miller — who said he will propose reform measures piecemeal in the Government Accountability and Ethics Committee, which he chairs — told LEO he hopes the Council ultimately votes to limit non-capital funds near his $15,000 proposal. Told that Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, referred to his proposal as “lipstick on a pig,” Miller shot back that “he must own the pig,” adding that he’s still waiting to hear specific reform measures from the Democrats.
“If he thinks it is window dressing, I am anxiously awaiting substantive reform proposals from Councilman Ackerson,” said Miller.