Whitesburg KY

Court is asked to OK weaker code of ethics

The Letcher County Fiscal Court this week approved the first reading of an ordinance that greatly weakens a county government code of ethics that has been in place for a number of years.

The ordinance read at the court’s May meeting on Monday guts rules on nepotism, but broadens the financial disclosure requirements for volunteers who serve on three county boards.

Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court the changes were needed to clarify the code.

The first changes Ward introduced was the deletion of the current definition of “public servant.” Under the ethics code ordinance already in place, public servant is defined as meaning “all county government elected officials, county government appointed officials, and county government employees, whether compensated or not, whether full-time or part-time.”

Also deleted from the new ordinance is a section that defines the word “family” as it applies to county’s hiring practices. Missing from the new document is this: “Immediate family and/or family member father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, sonin law, stepfather, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother or half-sister, and members of public servant’s households.”

The proposed ordinance also changes the definition of “county government employees.” While the current ordinance reads, “County Government Officer means any person, whether compensated or not, whether full-time or part-time, who is elected to any county government office; or any person who serves as a member of the governing body of any county government agency or special taxing or non-taxing district,” the proposed ordinance defines a county government employee as “any person whether compensated or not, whether full-time or part-time, who is elected, employed by or serving the county government or county government agency who is not a county government officer, but shall not mean any employee of a school district, school board, or temporary student workers, or summer program workers.”

The section of the ethics code dealing with the practice of nepotism will also be changed if the proposed ordinance passes. The current ordinance regulates that “no family member of a county officer shall be initially employed or appointed to a position in any county government agency in the same county in which the officer serves, except persons presently employed on the date of this disclosure.” The revised ordinance substitutes the words “elected county officer” for “county officer” in the first sentence.

The section of the existing ethics code dealing with financial disclosure would be broaden the number of people who will have to file financial disclosure statements to serve on county boards. The current ordinance says:

“A. The following individuals shall be required to file a financial disclosure; statement.

1. Elected Officers;

2. Candidates for elected office;

3. Management personnel such as Chief Deputies, department heads;

4. Officers and employees with procurement authority exceeding five hundred dollars (500) per purchase.”

The revised ordinance says:

“A. The following individuals shall be required to file a financial disclosure statement.

1. Elected Officers;

2. Candidates for elected office;

3. Members of the Water and Sewer Board;

4. Members of the Tourism Board;

5. Members of the Economic Development Board.”

The proposed changes drew comments from Letcher County Attorney Harold Bolling, who questioned the new definition of “county government employee.” Bolling said he doesn’t think that anyone who is employed by the county can be referred to in other terms if they are paid by the county. Bolling said an intern or student who is being paid by an outside agency could be exempt from being considered as a county employee for purposes of nepotism, but that anyone who is paid by the county, regardless of how they are classified, is in effect a county employee.

District Two Magistrate Archie Banks replied, “He (Ward) is shooting at summer programs.” Bolling said the term “temporary” is probably not the right word to use for summer employees and should be addressed before the second reading. Bolling also questioned the increased financial disclosure provisions in regard to a recent Attorney General’s ruling.

“The Attorney General’s decision says ‘special district boards’ are subject to financial disclosure,” said Bolling. “I’m not sure these are special districts.”

Ward said the three boards added to the ordinance were placed there because they can potentially handle county funds. District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson asked if the new ordinance means that a relative of a magistrate could be hired by the county.

“Say Keith (District Four Magistrate Keith Adams) has a brother who is a grader operator,” said Gibson. “Can the county hire him?”

“No,” replied Ward.

Bolling said the intent of the original ordinance had been to prevent a nepotism practice known as “cross hiring.” Bolling used the example of him asking Sheriff Danny Webb to hire his son as a deputy if he would hire one of Webb’s relatives to work in his office. Bolling said this type of action is what the ordinance had been designed to prevent. He also said that if any elected official votes on the hiring of a potential employee, it falls under the definition of nepotism.

“If Keith votes to hire him,” said Bolling. “You still can’t employ your family members.”

Magistrate Banks said that some of the provisions of the current ordinance are ridiculous, but Magistrate Gibson said that if the ordinance is to be changed from the current one it should be improved. The second reading will be conducted at the June meeting of the fiscal court.

The court also voted to accept an agreement to allow the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to assume management of the fishery for Fishpond Lake.

Fish and Wildlife Officer Frank Campbell said the Department Fish and Wildlife will not be taking over management or ownership of the lake. Campbell said the agreement is designed to make certain the restriction against using gasoline motors on Fishpond Lake is listed in the rules and regulations manual for fishing in Kentucky waters which is published annually by his department.

The manuals list general fishing laws in the state and also give provisions for specific bodies of water, such as the restriction on gasoline motors on Fishpond lake. Campbell said that as far as fishing rules go, the lake already operates under state fishing regulations.

Campbell also mentioned the ongoing situation with bears in Letcher County. His advice for residents is to mentally “embrace” the presence of the bears.

“Bears are going to be a way of life in Letcher County,” said Campbell. “We need to embrace them”

The court also went into executive session to discuss a personnel matter. When they emerged, Judge Ward made the recommendation to discharge Solid Waste Coordinator Josh Wampler for reasons discussed during the executive session. Ward also told the court he has appointed former Solid Waste Coordinator Johnny Ray Williams to assume the position vacated by Wampler.

Magistrate Gibson questioned Ward on the decision, asking if Williams was able to do the job. Ward replied that Williams is the only county employee certified and licensed to hold the post.

“Is he qualified?” asked Gibson. “That’s a $200,000 business. Does he have the management skills to do that?”

Ward told Gibson that Williams is subject to a six-month period of probation under the county’s personnel policy, and that his performance will be reviewed after the probationary period. Gibson said he feels the sanitation department should at least break even and should eventually make money.

“Waste Management makes money,” said Gibson, referring to one of the nation’s largest waste collection firms.

“They make money because they own the landfill,” replied
Ward. “They dump for free.”

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