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Louisville continues to spend less on ethics enforcement than similar cities

Louisville City Hall
Roberto Roldan
The Louisville Metro Council will finalize the city budget this month. It could include more funding for the Ethics Commission.

Louisville’s Ethics Commission is expected to get funding for its first full-time employee this year, but that’s still less than what its leaders requested the past two years.

Louisville now asks the Ethics Commission to do more than ever before, yet the majority of its work is done by a volunteer board.

The commission provides advisory opinions to local leaders about whether their actions might violate the city’s ethics code. It also handles misconduct complaints against city employees and elected officials. The commission held a high-profile trial last year based on one of those complaints, finding that a Metro Council member championed a $40 million dollar grant for a nonprofit while negotiating a job with the group.

In 2022, Metro Council put the commission in charge of ensuring people who are paid to influence local leaders register as lobbyists.

Ethics Commission Chair Dee Pregliasco said that as the independent oversight body has been given more responsibilities in recent years, it hasn’t received commensurate resources.

“The letters, the [advisory opinion] requests, the requests for public records, all of that has really just skyrocketed and overloaded the little help that we have,” Pregliasco said.

Mayor Craig Greenberg wants to take a step toward changing that.

In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, Greenberg included funding to give the commission a full-time support staffer, rather than the part-time employee they currently have.

Scottie Ellis, Greenberg’s spokesperson, said the mayor recognizes the importance of the Ethics Commission’s oversight role.

“The Greenberg administration has been actively working with the Ethics Commission to understand how to better support their work, while being fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ dollars,” Ellis said in an email.

Greenberg’s proposed budget also includes additional funding for the commission’s contract with its lawyer, Todd Lewis.

However, for the second year in a row, Greenberg declined the Ethics Commission’s request for a full-time director, saying creating that position would require action by Metro Council.

Commission leaders say they want to see Louisville increase funding for ethics enforcement in line with what similar cities spend.

The ask

In April 2023, the Ethics Commission sent a letter to Greenberg and Metro Council President Markus Winkler warning them of a “serious and immediate need” for additional funding. They noted that all of the body’s work is done by a volunteer board, a contract attorney and a part-time HR person.

That may have worked when the Ethics Commission spent most of its time issuing advisory opinions. But now, the commission wrote, it must also enforce new financial disclosures rules for city officials, track lobbyist registrations and, most recently, ensure federal COVID-19 relief is spent appropriately.

“We live in an era of increasing demands upon ‘watchdog’ agencies of government, a demand that is not likely to abate,” the letter stated. “The reality is these functions have a cost that cannot be avoided.”

The Ethics Commission asked city leaders for a full-time human resources employee and a director to oversee its various programs, including misconduct investigations and ethics training for city employees. They estimated the director’s salary and benefits would cost $108,000-$125,000.

Pregliasco and Lewis tried repeatedly to argue for more funding, through meetings and letters, but didn’t receive it in the budget passed last summer.

Lewis said the Ethics Commission’s warning about its inadequate budget came true last year when the commission received a complaint against Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, a District 19 Republican. That complaint resulted in an eight-month process including an investigation and a trial that cost taxpayers at least $193,000.

Without a director, it was Lewis and the volunteer board that had to oversee the investigation and trial logistics.

Because of the trial, Lewis said the Ethics Commission quickly exhausted the funding it would have used to pay him. They had to go back to the city at least twice and ask for more money, so they wouldn’t be at risk of not having an attorney to advise them.

“It’s like driving a car on a thousand mile trip and then running out of gas five times and having to call a tow truck to get the gas out there,” Lewis said. “Just fill the tank up.”

Greenberg’s proposed budget for next year does include additional funding for Lewis’ contract, but nothing for a director for the Ethics Commission.

In response to questions from LPM News, the Greenberg administration said creating that position would require Metro Council to change local law because the commission has asked that the director answer directly to it, not city leaders.

There aren’t currently any employees of Louisville Metro Government who can’t be hired or fired by the mayor or Metro Council. The absolute independence of the director is important, the commission has argued, because that person may have to initiate investigations into actions by those same officials.

Additional funding still inadequate, commission says

If Metro Council accepts Greenberg’s proposed funding for the Ethics Commission, its budget will jump from $65,000 to $112,300.

That’s still less than what other cities — like Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh — spend on ethics enforcement.

An analysis the Ethics Commission provided to Metro Council last month found that those similar-sized cities spend an average of $291,243 a year on ensuring city employees and elected officials are held accountable to good governance.

Lewis said it’s not likely that Louisville’s ethics enforcement body will handle a high-profile case, like Piagentini’s, every year. But he said the Ethics Commission has to have the capacity to meet unexpected challenges.

“If there’s going to be a functional system of ethics enforcement, then we can’t have something land on the commission out of the blue and then scramble to see if we can keep the lights on,” he said.

Lewis said the Piagentini trial drew more attention to the commission, resulting in more misconduct complaints filed against elected officials than in the past. It also spurred more Metro Council members to ask for advisory opinions before taking a job or voting on specific legislation.

“Officials are clearly trying to comply and learn what their obligations are [under the Ethics Code],” he said. “It’s not fair to them that it might take a month when they need an answer quicker.”

In addition to its request for additional staff, the Ethics Commission is also eyeing other improvements.

It’s planning to create an online portal where lobbyists can file their registration forms and residents can view that information. The Greenberg administration said it’s currently working with the commission to use existing funding set aside for technology services to pay for that project.

Chair Pregliasco said the commission also wants to have some sort of physical presence, “a place where somebody can come and get the information they need, file their complaints.”

That, too, would require the mayor’s office and Metro Council to devote more funding for ethics enforcement.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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