Louisville ethics panel refers conflict of interest opinion to M - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Louisville ethics panel refers conflict of interest opinion to Metro Council

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Metro Ethics Commission won't determine what steps members of the Metro Council must take to identify possible conflicts of interest on zoning issues.

The panel instead voted unanimously on Thursday to send the matter, which stems from an opinion sought by council President Jim King, to the council's Government Accountability and Ethics committee.

"I really think it was a matter of the request being beyond our authority, frankly," ethics commission chairman Jonathan Ricketts told reporters after the meeting.

"I think if we'd have given an opinion it would have lacked the statutory authority that it needed. It really needed to be heard at that level – bottom line." 

Ricketts said he believes the ethics commission should be involved in the council's discussions.

King, a Democrat, was the target of three ethics complaints that accused him of conflicts of interest in voting on certain zoning cases. For example, according to King's motion to dismiss the complaints, Janice Rucker claimed King voted in 2011 to rezone land owned by a company to which his King Southern Bank had extended a mortgage the year before.

The mayor-appointed ethics commission dismissed the complaints earlier this month, but King has abstained from voting on zoning matters until getting clarity from the ethics commission. 

Michael Abate, an attorney for King, said after Thursday's meeting that the ethics commission's decision was "entirely appropriate."

Asked if King preferred that the ethics commission be the final arbiter, Abate said, "The request we put forward simply sought clarification and didn't take a position on that -- whether it come from the commission or back from the council."

Republican Jerry Miller, vice chairman of the government accountability committee, called the issue a "policy matter" that should be discussed by council members. At the same time, he noted that officials serve on a variety of boards and "the depth of conflict of interest is one that's going to be complex."

While the King case is limited to zoning matters, Democratic council member Tina Ward-Pugh raised a broader question at a meeting of the government accountability committee on Tuesday.

"It begs the question for all of us what level of due diligence and pursuit of conflicts of interest should we be required to go to before voting on any matter?" asked Ward-Pugh, the panel's chair. She noted that council members hold a variety of jobs.

"It's something we need to deal with this year," she said.

At the same meeting, ethics commission attorney Deborah Kent foreshadowed the commission's actions on Thursday.

"There seems to be a sense that this issue is something where policy guidance from the council will be necessary," she said.

The ethics commission voted 5-0 to seek the council's input. Two of the panel's seven members didn't attend the meeting.

Ethics commission members discussed the Metro Council's legislative process, their potential role in changes to ethics laws and how much information a council member should have about his or her business before casting a vote.

Ricketts noted that besides voting on individual zoning matters, council members also vote on batches of zoning and other legislation on a consent calendar – "where they put things that are not objected to."

Ricketts said a business owner "should be apprised of what his business is doing," although he acknowledged that the size of a company could make that difficult in some cases.

Although the commission wasn't asked to weigh in on King's decision to recuse himself from zoning votes, commission member Susan Rhodes said: "In the meantime, while this is sorted out, it may be a good idea for President King abstains from voting on any actions, even consent agendas."

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