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UPDATE: Last-minute changes in Louisville merger bill affect police accountability, zoning, elections

The Louisville skyline as seen from Shelby Park.
Ryan Van Velzer
The Louisville skyline as seen from Shelby Park.

The last-minute additions include a freeze on city zoning laws, a study on the makeup of the Metro Council, and changes to the review process for LMPD complaints.

Last updated at 5:45 p.m. Monday

The bill making significant changes to Louisville Metro Government services and elections cleared the Kentucky Senate Monday, less than a week after a committee added late amendments to freeze city zoning laws and change the review process for police complaints.

The Senate passed House Bill 388 by a 25-11 vote, with two Republicans representing part of Jefferson County joining all Democrats to vote against the bill.

On the Senate floor Monday, GOP Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown said he was voting for HB 388 “out of respect for” Greenberg, adding that the mayor “was involved in the discussions on this bill.”

“Even though he's a member of the other party, I feel like he's doing a really good job reaching out to members of the General Assembly trying to work together, which I appreciate,” Thayer said.

A floor amendment from Democratic Sen. Cassie Chamber Armstrong was attached to the bill, which would delay its changes to the disciplinary process for Louisville Metro Police Department officers to next year.

Original story published Monday at 6 a.m.

Shortly before the hearing Wednesday, a committee substitute was provided to lawmakers on the bill that would implement some of the recommendations from a controversial report on the state of Louisville’s merger 20 years later.

But the additions appeared to have nothing to do with those recommendations.

The bill already makes significant changes — like making Louisville elections for mayor and Metro Council nonpartisan and requiring the city reimburse suburban fire districts for providing emergency medical services inside the urban core.

The added 13 pages to the original bill would change the disciplinary process for Louisville Metro Police Department officers — decreasing transparency for the public, raising the burden of proof for disciplinary action and likely lengthening the process overall. It would also put a freeze on changing the city’s zoning ordinances until after next year’s legislative session.

The bill and its new provisions could come up for a vote as early as Monday.

Mindy Fulner
It's been 20 years since Louisville and Jefferson County merged governments. We took a look at a handful of the challenges the newly merged government faced and how it managed them. Explore how merger affects Louisvillians' lives today.

Middletown GOP Rep. Jason Nemes, the bill’s sponsor, said he made the change to bring Louisville in line with the police “bill of rights” that applies to officers outside of LMPD.

“We made the police disciplinary process the same as it is across the state,” Nemes said. “That’s the same provision that is applied in all 119 other counties, so that’s all we did. We copy and pasted it.”

But some of the changes would appear to be unique to Louisville.

Nemes’ bill would give accused officers the opportunity to ask for a “pre-disciplinary hearing.” That means that before the chief can issue discipline, there could be a hearing where “the officer may present evidence and call and cross-examine witnesses in the officer's defense.” The statute says nothing about the victim or witness being allowed to offer counter arguments.

After that hearing and the chief’s official opinion, the officer would be given 10 days to appeal the decision to the board, although sometimes the secondary review is required. Unlike the current process in Jefferson County, those review hearings would be closed to the public — and that change does align with the statute outside Jefferson County. Even after that secondary review, officers would have the ability to appeal to the Circuit Court.

The bill passed a Senate committee vote Wednesday, with only Democrats voting in opposition, and will head to the Senate floor for consideration. The original version of the legislation already passed in the House.

Louisville Democratic Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong, who voted against the bill in committee, said she is concerned about the additional changes to LMPD’s disciplinary process. The bill also comes after a recent Department of Justice report, which found numerous issues with the department’s accountability structure.

“I am concerned about drawing out the process, about adding more red tape,” Chambers Armstrong said.

She said she is hoping to get more input from city employees about how this would affect operations and find if it would cost the department more money to implement. Chambers Armstrong filed a floor amendment to the bill that would give the city time before it would have to implement the new disciplinary procedure.

Louisville Metro is in the process of negotiating a consent decree with the DOJ, which would be enforced by the courts. Nemes said he doesn’t believe his bill would conflict with the consent decree and believes the deal with the federal government would take precedence over state law.

Chambers Armstrong said she believes most control should be kept on the local level, rather than the General Assembly dictating what needs to be done.

“One of the my overarching concerns this session has been the way that we are taking decisions away from people closest to the problems we are trying to solve,” Chambers Armstrong said.

The current bill would also prohibit Louisville Metro from changing its residential zoning codes until April, 2025 and requests the mayor review the zoning codes and provide his recommendations to the General Assembly.

Nemes said the changes were requested by members of the Senate, and were “not his idea.”

“There’s a lot of disagreement about the process on both sides,” Nemes said. “Some people want more citizen involvement, some people want quicker development if the rules are met. What we said there was ‘look, let’s just push the pause button.’”

There is a sense among Republicans that issues with affordable housing and homelessness in the state’s biggest cities are caused by zoning laws.

Senate President Robert Stivers said cities should reconsider their zoning laws in defense of another bill that — after going into law over the governor’s veto — allows landlords to discriminate against people who receive federal assistance,

“The city of Louisville and the city of Lexington have a homelessness problem directly related to their bad policies that they’ve passed,” Stivers said.

Greenberg released a draft of new regulations this week that would allow duplexes and other multifamily units on land currently zoned solely for single-family housing. Nemes’ bill, if it is successfully, would likely throw a wrench in those plans.

In a statement to Louisville Public Media, Mayor Craig Greenberg’s spokesperson said only that there were “some surprises in the amended version of House Bill 388.” Scottie Ellis said the mayor’s office is still advocating for changes to the bill, without providing any specifics.

The additions to the legislation would also require the mayor to study the composition of the Metro Council, including considering whether the number of seats should change or if the council should include at-large members. Those findings too would be reported to the legislature.

Generally, the minutiae of zoning regulations are left up to cities. Nemes declined to say what more the legislature would do to change Louisville’s zoning ordinances beyond saying the legislature is in charge of setting the parameters of zoning laws, which they have the authority to change.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.