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Senate Committee Strips Civilian Oversight Board Subpoena Powers In HB 309

Kentucky senators stripped the power to issue subpoenas from a bill that would have granted Louisville’s new civilian review board authority to compel testimony and seek discovery as it oversees the city’s police department.

On Tuesday, the Senate Standing Committee on State and Local Government voted 9 to 1 to remove the section from HB 309. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, a Republican, said he believes a compromise could appear as a floor amendment ahead of the bill going to a vote in the Senate, which could happen as soon as Tuesday. 

That compromise would have the civilian board to go through a Metro Council committee with the powers necessary to issue subpoenas, and would require the committee to turn over the findings to the board, Nemes said. 

“Our community needs this, we believe, so we reached out to a number of people, the [Fraternal Order of Police], the ACLU, Sen. [Morgan] McGarvey, and I think we have a compromise that works,” Nemes said. 

The bill still retains unrelated policies affecting local governance in Louisville, including limiting mayors to two terms, requiring Metro Council to pre-approve any settlement offers in excess of $1 million and allowing suburban cities to annex parts of Louisville Metro without Metro Council’s approval. 

Under the measure, independent cities within Louisville Metro could vote to annex parts of Louisville Metro when 75% or more of the residents in the proposed area sign a petition in favor of it. The annexation would not be subject to veto by Metro Council or Louisville’s mayor. 

Louisville Metro Council member Bill Hollander, a Democrat, said the bill is contrary to what residents voted for when the city and county governments merged in 2003. He pointed out the language did not appear in the original bill, and said interested stakeholders have not had the time necessary to discuss the measure.

“I don’t think this is the kind of change that should be made to our merged government, that the voters of Jefferson County approved, without any discussion in our community,” Hollander said in committee. 

Hollander said he is also concerned the latest version of the measure removes Metro Council’s ethics commission subpoena power, too.

“I don’t understand why we would be doing a bill which would say that our ethics commission would no longer have subpoena power,” he said. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Miller of Eastwood, a Republican, said if the bill does strip the ethics commission of that power, he would be happy to add that language back in. 

HB 309 would also shorten the maximum tenure of Louisville’s mayor from three terms to two. Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, said he’s interested in having a conversation about term limits for elected offices, but doesn’t think the legislature is acting fairly. 

“We’re coming back in here because we don’t like the decision of one mayor in one year and limiting terms,” McGarvey said. “Maybe it’s the right thing to do, but let’s have a full-blown discussion about term limits.”

Another section of HB 309 would require a Metro Council committee to approve any settlement of $1 million or more before making an offer. That could lead the city to lose its insurance coverage, said Jefferson County Attorney’s Office legislative services chief Holly Hopkins.

“Simply put, if the entity with the financial exposure can’t control the risk while making the decision,” Hopkins said in committee. “There is little incentive for them to provide that coverage.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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