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Questionable Spending Prompts Oversight Hearings

Listen NowFrom Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh Questionable spending practices at the Kentucky Association of Counties and the Kentucky League of Cities were the focus of a two-hour legislative hearing in Frankfort.Recent investigations by the Lexington Herald-Leader have raised serious questions about the expenditure of taxpayer dollars by the top staff of the two organizations, also called KACo and K-L-C.Using the state’s Open Records Act, the newspaper uncovered extravagant spending on travel, entertainment, hotels and meals at both organizations. Among the findings? KACo credit cards were used for nearly $900 in payments to strip clubs and an escort service.

The revelations unleashed a firestorm of criticism, with organization members withholding dues and demandingchanges. That’s rapidly occurring, with the boards of each agency instituting new accountability measures, including tighter control of credit cards.So far, KACo Executive Director Bob Arnold has survived, but KLC Executive Director Sylvia Lovely is stepping down, January 1st.Among those watching events unfold are Kentucky lawmakers, who have close working relationships with both organizations.“The series of articles, which I have completely reviewed, have been troubling to members of this committee and our mutual constituents.”That’s Sen. Damon Thayer, who co-chairs the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government with Louisville Rep. Steve Riggs. Thayer, of Scott County, is particularly incensed about the BMW SUV, KLC provides its executive director.“In Georgetown, Kentucky, we make the Toyota Camry, which is the number one selling car in North America,” saidThayer.Seeking answers, Sen. Thayer and Rep. Riggs, invited KACo President Michael Foster and KLC President Connie Lawson to appear before their committee. And while assuring lawmakers her board is making needed adjustments, Lawson made a frank admission about her board service.“I am just not really sure if I knew exactly what a board was supposed to do in its entirety,” said Lawson.That drew an immediate response from Rep. Ron Crimm of Louisville, who says it points to a vital need forboard training.“Before they sit, they need to be brought up to snuff with what’s going on and what their responsibilities are, so that they don’t feel intimidated when they go to a meeting,” said Crimm.Another concern of committee members, including Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington, is board size. KLC’s board has 53 members. KACo’s has 34.“Anytime you have a large board that is comprised of elected officials, who are subject to recall election, you’re going to have a circumstance of disengagement,” said Simpson.KACo President Michael Foster agrees large boards can pose problems, but reminds committee members, his organization serves 120 counties.“Thirty-four is a little closer to the magic number than maybe 60-plus,” said Foster. “But I don’t know that 34 is right, either. Obviously a board of 10 would be too small.”Rep. Simpson is also concerned about transparency issues, especially since KLC, at one point, refused to respond to the Herald-Leader’s Open Records requests.“If you take one percent of government money, you as elected officials, should cooperate in every manner with the press,” said Simpson.That drew no argument from incoming KLC President Mike Miller.“As long as we can protect our proprietory (sic) information, I don’t see any resistance to the rest of it being open,” said Miller.Miller, Lawson and Foster all promised to share with their boards the concerns and suggestions raised at the hearing. Sen. Thayer also wants a progress report later this year. In the meantime, the management practices of both agencies remain under the scrutiny of State Auditor Crit Luallen.

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.