Ethics board cites "no jurisdiction" in ethics complaint

·5 min read

Sep. 21—A complaint before the City's Ethics Board regarding some city and tourism employees and board members was declared as being out of the jurisdiction of the ethics committee.

The ethics board met last week to discuss the complaint outlining several alleged violations of the City's personnel and ethics ordinances by city officials. It also included some content regarding members serving on the City's tourism commission.

The complaint involved nepotism in hiring practices of the tourism commission as well as familial relationships between several elected and appointed city officials. Those officials included London Mayor Troy Rudder's stepdaughter being hired by the City Tourism Commission when it became an SPGE. Rudder's stepdaughter had previously been hired by him to head London Community Center operations. The City Tourism board voted to move her to the same position under their new organization as an SPGE.

Nepotism has not just been a concern of the complainant. In a recent audit of the city and city tourism by the State Auditor's office, it was noted that there were 50 family relationships among 202 city employees and officials.

The complaint also cites former tourism commission member Mike Holt for serving on two SPGE boards, which violates KRS 61.080 that states: "No person shall, at the same time, fill any two appointed offices of special purpose government entities." Holt is director of the Laurel Dispatch, where he serves on the board, as well as sitting on the London Utility Commission board and London City Tourism board. Both of those are SPGE organizations. Holt has since resigned from the tourism board and a replacement has already been filled.

Nepotism issues arose again with two city tourism members. The complaint states that Holt and tourism commission member Phil Smith voted to hire family members, which violates the city's nepotism policy. Holt's son was hired in a supervisory position for Levi Jackson Park, which falls under the city tourism's oversight. Holt's brother was also hired by the city tourism commission, as was Smith's nephew.

Additionally, Smith was named in the complaint as being a resident living outside the city limits. The complaint states:

"In violation of Tourism Commission By-Law #4 which states "That the Tourist Commission has been established of seven members, living within the City of London...' Phil Smith's legal residence is outside of London City Limits although he does operate a business on Main Street with living accommodations above that business.

Another claim included in the complaint was that City Clerk Marcy Berry was named to that position while her father-in-law, former Tourism Commission chair Steve Berry, still served on the board. Although she had been employed at London City Hall prior to that appointment as City Clerk, Marcy Berry had previously worked for City Attorney Larry Bryson. While Berry's employment with Bryson is no violation of state statutes, the complaint uses that as an example "of how deeply rooted nepotism and cronyism is within the City of London."

The complaint also provides a timeline of events leading up to the separation of the tourism board from the city's oversight. In June 2021, Ordinance 2021-06 was approved by London City Council members and included a 'grandfather clause" for city employees who had family relationships that would conflict with the new city ordinance regarding nepotism. The establishment of the SPGE by the city tourism commission then adopted the same grandfather clause for former city employees who were applying for positions in the city tourism realm. The complaint claims that with the city tourism commission becoming separate from the city government as an SPGE, the grandfather clause should not apply.

Mayor Troy Rudder and his attorney, Scott Miller, were present for the hearing, as were Holt, City Attorney Larry Bryson and Smith. The person who filed the complaint — Douglas Phelps — was not present for the meeting, which was a concern for Bryson who pointed out the complainant's name and lack of presence to media outlets.

The complaints were addressed with the parties involved in an executive session, then the parties were asked to leave the meeting room so board members could reach a decision. At the conclusion of the deliberation session, Ethics Board chair Jane Dyche stated in the open meeting session that based on advice from the newly hired Ethics Board attorney who is based in Covington, KY, that the complaint is out of the jurisdiction of the Ethics Board. It was stated that the complaint fails to cite minimal factual basis of violation of the city ordinances. Dyche stated that the city tourism commission is an SPGE and is outside the City's oversight — thus leaving the city's ethics board as having no jurisdiction over issues involving city tourism. The ethics board will now have their attorney record the decision in writing to the parties involved, thus closing the inquiry of that complaint.

Phelps said he was not notified of the meeting, which constituted his absence.

"If I'd known there was a meeting, I would have been there," he said. "I did not receive a notice. I did get a phone call from Jane Dyche, telling me that there was an acknowledgment of receiving my complaint. I picked the letter up after the meeting and it had a date the meeting would be held. I should have been notified by mail of the meeting."

Phelps added that the issue was not closed, citing KRS 65A.070, Section 1(a): "The board, officers, and employees of each special purpose government entity shall be subject to the code of ethics of the establishing entity is which the special purpose government entity's principal business office is located."

That would appear to differ with the ethics board's decision that they have no jurisdiction over SPGE's — which in this case applies to the London Tourism Commission and the London Utility Commission.

Matt Stephens with the Department for Local Government also cited that same statute when questioned by Phelps on the decision made by the ethics board.