A Louisville Metro Council member hopes the public isn’t losing trust in city lawmakers after a series of spending controversies, and expects reforms will be made to the council’s discretionary spending accounts as a result.
Reports in the Louisville Courier-Journal and LEO Weekly uncovered that council members have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on food and prizes for constituents using Kroger gift cards at community events.
Outside experts and political observers have slammed the practice saying it’s akin to “handing out cash.”
Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, says city lawmakers should not be using their accounts to reward constituents and the council needs stronger restrictions and oversight on discretionary funds if it wants to keep the public’s trust.
“It doesn’t matter if it is one dime or one million dollars, we need to hold ourselves at a high standard in making sure that the taxpayers can have the trust and confidence in us to expend their money wisely,” he says.
Each Metro Council member has an account at Kroger to use for district business. However, city records show many gift cards were used for residents at contests, parties and neighborhood festivals.
For the past three years, Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, has spent $1,550 on gift cards. Defending the purchases, Hamilton admitted some of that money was used in a raffle for residents who worked to help pass a wet-dry vote in the 5th District, where she supported a ban on alcohol sales in certain precincts.
The Kentucky state constitution prohibits cities from using public funds for gifts under any circumstances.
Hamilton declined our request for comment, but did issue a statement criticizing the C-J’s story. The west Louisville councilwoman says the article suggests gift cards were used to bribe constituents to support voting parts of district dry.
“The outcome of the wet/dry election … was accomplished through the hard work and dedication of neighborhood residents and others over the course of many months who were sick and tired of crime in their area. They met in area churches and strategized in weekly community meetings all year long to accomplish their goal,” said Hamilton. “To hint that the Kroger cards distributed as door prizes at a Christmas party that year could have been, or were, used to influence the election outcome is a slap in the face to those people who gave of their time and energy and work very hard to make their community a better place.”
The council’s spending has bee heavily scrutinized in the wake of two ethics charges against Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1, who is accused of nepotism in city-funded program she secured funding for and rerouting discretionary funds.
Leading up to the first ethics hearing, Green publicly said she was being unfairly singled out for spending practices that are commonplace among her Democratic colleagues. Green specifically named Hamilton as someone who “does that too.”
“Given the recent ethics charges against one member of the Metro Council, I am not surprised that any media outlet would review how we spend our discretionary funds,” Hamilton said in a statement. “I welcome anyone to review what I have spent, and how I have used taxpayer dollars over my years in office.”
In response to these mounting controversies, council Republicans have asked the mayor to cut discretionary spending in the wake of spending controversies and to help balance the city’s $22 million deficit.
A spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer says the administration is concerned about the lax record-keeping and lack of transparency, but has not indicated if any cuts to council accounts will be made in the upcoming budget proposal.
Fleming says he expects the controversy will lead to some changes in council spending, but doubts the Democratic-controlled body will approve serious reforms.
“I’ve been on record that I would like to get ride of the discretionary funds. I don’t think they’re necessary, however, I don’t think there’s the political will to get ride of them. We can reduce them, I think. Cut them in half,” he says.