Metro Council proposal looks to curb behind-the-scenes contact between officials, developers
Amid a lawsuit alleging a Metro Council member worked closely with a Louisville developer to force through his project, the body is considering an ordinance that would discourage behind-the-scenes communications on zoning cases.
The proposal, sponsored by District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander, would require members to avoid any contact with developers, their lobbyists or concerned neighbors, except at public meetings. That would apply to all legislation related to zoning, which determines what can be built on properties throughout Louisville Metro.
If communications between council members and interested parties did occur beyond public meetings, they would have to disclose them before a final vote on the relevant zoning case.
Hollander, a Democrat who is not running for re-election, said the proposal mirrors restrictions that were in place before the 2003 merger of Jefferson County and the City of Louisville. Officials on the county’s Fiscal Court, which oversaw property zoning issues at that time, had a rule discouraging them from having private conversations about those issues.
It’s hard to make a decision based only on public meetings and documents if council members are talking to interested parties in private, Hollander said.
“Obviously, Fiscal Court thought it was better to just not have those personal contacts and so do I,” he said.
Hollander said his proposal came out of conversations he had with neighborhood leaders in his district, which includes Crescent Hill, Cherokee Gardens and parts of St. Matthews. He said some people expressed concerns that zoning cases might not be decided on the merits, but because some developers have better access to council members.
“When people have been told by council members, ‘Look, we make decisions based on the record. Put your comments before the Planning Commission,’” Hollander said. “And then they see situations where that doesn’t appear to be the case, then they ask questions about why there aren’t any rules about this.”
Lawsuit alleges ‘corruption’ in recent rezoning case
Hollander said those concerns arose after a lawsuit was filed in June 2021 against Metro Council alleging “corruption” and “blatant favoritism” in a rezoning case. Attorney Steve Porter brought the lawsuit on behalf of neighbors who opposed a planned 344-unit apartment complex off Cedar Creek Road near the Fern Creek neighborhood.
The lawsuit made public emails between Democratic District 26 Council Member Brent Ackerson, developer Scott Hagan and Hagan’s hired lobbyists in the days leading up to a critical vote.
Hagan’s push to get the property rezoned from residential to multi-family was rejected by the city’s Planning Commission last April, a move that would have typically ended the project. But Metro Council voted weeks later to reject that recommendation and allow the development to move forward.
It’s unclear what motivated individual council members to vote against the Planning Commission, but in court filings Porter pointed to the extensive emails between Ackerson and the development team that showed them scrambling to gain support. In the emails, the development team discussed donating to an opponent of an unsupportive council member and getting a friend in state government to put pressure on the Metro Council president.
The trove of communications also included screenshots of text messages between the development team and Metro Council’s Republican Caucus Director Steve Haag about how Ackerson’s lobbying efforts were making some feel “squeamish.”
“You need to understand that Brent [Ackerson] going this far just now causes everyone to feel as if he has something at stake. This is highly unusual behavior and even Dems are noting that as well,” Haag allegedly wrote.
After the vote, Hagan, the developer, emailed Ackerson, “YOU PLAYED IT LIKE A MAESTRO.” Ackerson responded that a mutual friend thought highly of Hagan, “so de facto you were my guy from the get go.”
Ackerson did not respond to a request for comment on the pending lawsuit. A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge ruled in December that Metro Council members and Hagan would have to answer questions from Porter.
Metro Council members already advised against private conversations
Hollander said his proposed ordinance would also codify guidance Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s Office provides to Metro Council members on zoning issues.
WFPL News obtained a December 2018 guidance document titled “Metro Council and land use.” It instructs council members to base their decisions solely on the city’s comprehensive plan, zoning rules and the Planning Commission’s record of public meetings and documents.
“Inform developers, constituents and others that they should discuss concerns with one another and should introduce all relevant evidence Metro Council should consider at the public hearing on the zoning case,” O’Connell’s office advises.
The document cites legal cases that outline pitfalls council members may encounter as they decide whether to approve a rezoning. It even provides a template for “appropriate responses” to anyone wanting to talk to a member directly about a rezoning case. The template directs council members to comment only during public meetings and reiterates that they can only base their decision off of meeting records.
The guidance document from the County Attorney also makes council members aware that “any positions or public commentary may expose you to legal scrutiny.” It warns that residents opposing a rezoning or development project could ask to examine Metro Council members' communications for signs of blatant favoritism or fraud.
Hollander’s proposed ordinance is assigned to Metro Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee, which has not yet debated it. A spokesperson for the council’s majority Democratic Caucus said the caucus has taken no official position on the proposal as of Wednesday.