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Council Democrats Defend Gift Card Purchases

Gift card purchases made by the Louisville Metro Council have ignited a new round of audits and raised more questions about discretionary spending, but members of the Democratic caucus say the practice is justifiable.Records show council Democrats are doing most of the spending with Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, leading the pack with $1,550 spent on gift cards over three years, some of which went to residents in a raffle contest.The Kentucky state constitution prohibits cities from using public funds for gifts under any circumstances and outside experts have likened the practice to “handing out cash.”Many Democrats have defended the use of gift cards, however, saying it is easy to "nickel and dime" Metro government but the gift cards are used in a way to get people involved with their neighborhoodAnd Democratic caucus spokesperson Tony Hyatt says members are concerned that reports of council purchases are being exaggerated."I won’t say that everyone thinks it’s blown out of proportion because everyone welcomes scrutiny, but there are several council members who believe that do you not expect people to operate their office or interact with constituents in the community with this kind of scrutiny," he says. "There’s been more concern that we’re making more of this an issue than it actually is."Hyatt acknowledges media outlets and residents are more critical of the council in the wake of ethics allegations facing Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1, who has been accused of rerouting discretionary funds through a non-profit group against council rules.Despite the low amounts, this controversy has raised more questions about discretionary spending and has media outlets looking deeper at the council's reimbursements and allocation of funds. But Democrats have argued the spending is allowed under the current policies and procedures."There has never been any recommendations or any indications that there needed to be tracking with who got cards or what they were used for up until recently," says Hyatt. "Many council members who have been using a Kroger card have been doing it well within the guidelines of the Metro Council’s polices."However, an audit was performed of the council’s business office that roundly criticized gift card purchases along with other giveaways.Republican lawmakers have also voiced concerns, increasing their calls for cuts to discretionary spending and additional oversight, saying the spending is unacceptable in the face of the city's $22 million deficit.In response, Council President Jim King, D-10, is seeking a legal opinion from the county attorney’s office to review the practice. He also asked the city’s internal auditor to inspect office expenditures, including all Kroger gift card purchases for the last three fiscal years.Mayor Greg Fischer, however, has said little publicly other than overall concern about the lack of transparency. The mayor is expected to release his budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year next week.