Though no specific action item was brought forward, a proposal to amend the city's ethics code to limit what commissioners can divulge from closed sessions prompted heated debate at a Frankfort City Commission meeting Monday.
The proposed ordinance, an amendment to the city’s code of ethics drafted by City Solicitor Laura Ross, would disallow any city officer or employee from disclosing information that, by law or policy, “is not available to the public.”
The ordinance, which at this point is only a draft, comes in the wake of Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge providing information to The State Journal about the contents of a closed session held Aug. 10 prior to the firing of Keith Parker.
Waldridge on Monday criticized the ordinance, as she did in a previous meeting, for its potential impact on officials being able to call out behavior they feel is improper. She also questioned the constitutionality of such a measure.
She also characterized the proposal as a way to effectively “muzzle” her efforts to be open about what happened in the course of Parker’s Aug. 10 firing.
“Now that someone is trying to put out the truth of what has occurred, we’re looking to change the verbiage,” Waldridge said.
Ross said that she was told to draft the proposition because such directives had “no teeth.”
Mayor Bill May cited Waldridge’s past conduct, which he called “a potential violation” of the commission’s 4-1 vote at the Aug. 10 meeting to not disclose the contents of the closed session.
May and Commissioners Eric Whisman, John Sower and Scott Tippett all appeared to voice support for the proposed change to the ethics code. Tippett, though, made the caveat that he wants Ross to continue to review the amendment for compliance with Kentucky League of Cities model ethics ordinances.
Though the primary reason commissioners advocated for such an ethics ordinance prior to Monday’s meeting was limiting a divulsion as Waldridge’s, some commissioners shifted the emphasis toward the idea that the ordinance could protect the reputation of employees.
“What I’m concerned about is the lower-level employees,” Tippett said. “When we have discussions about lower-level employees, are we going to run the risk of those people having their reputations ruined?”
May said that any ordinance would still protect those who wish to call out potentially illegal or unethical behavior.
“This whole discussion is not to try to muzzle anyone,” May said. “… If anyone is doing anything that we think is violating a law, we have fiduciary duties to disclose that.”
He also said that any change to the ethics code would not penalize Waldridge or any commissioner retroactively.
Waldridge said an overarching concern, which she says may have kept her from going public with closed session information in the first place, was that she was never consulted about Parker’s firing or any reasons the commission may have had for it. She said she still has not been made aware of any reasons for the action.
“I think that it’s negligent to keep pertinent information from a voting member,” Waldridge said. “Not only are you trying to muzzle me, but you’re also trying to keep things from a commissioner … . Maybe if this was discussed versus going in with a decision, this would have come out differently. It’s doing nothing but making more controversy.”
The State Journal contacted Chris Johnson, a municipal law attorney with the Kentucky League of Cities, regarding how many cities have adopted such an ordinance.
Johnson said that many cities do have such a provision prohibiting discussion of closed session matters, but did not say a majority had that provision.
The commission did not vote Monday on the adoption of any amendment to the ethics code, but May said that he will wait for further direction from city staff.
Other business: Second reading of tax rate, city staff raise discussed
The commission also heard a second reading of the city’s tax rate on property.
Commissioners voted to approve the city’s new rate of 19.6 cents per $100 of real and personal property. That is the compensating rate, which means it would generate roughly the same amount of tax revenue as last year.
Tensions between Waldridge and Whisman, the two candidates running for reelection, became apparent once again with the commission’s discussion of filling a vacant seat on the city and county’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee.
The commission voted 4-1 to appoint Whisman as the city’s representative on that committee. The appointment made Waldridge, who had also volunteered to serve on that committee, upset.
While the commission went forward in appointing Whisman on Sower’s motion, with Waldridge being the lone “no” vote, May directed the city to ask if the Franklin County Fiscal Court could add another appointment from their ranks so the city could also put Waldridge on that committee.
Commissioners also discussed potential cost-of-living raises for city employees, with all commissioners appearing in favor of at least a 1% raise.
Finance Director Alicia Boyd said that a 1% increase in pay for all city employees would cost the city around $150,000 for the rest of the financial year.
After some discussion, May directed staff to draft up separate ordinances for 1% and 1.5% raises for all city employees to be considered at the next commission meeting.