Most of Barren County Fiscal Court members didn’t have much to say Tuesday on the process of updating the county’s Code of Ethics.
The county’s ordinance that incorporates its ethics rules got what was probably its first test in September with the filing of a complaint that was ultimately dismissed. In the process, though, the ordinance’s shortcomings were spotlighted, and parties on both sides of the complaint and the Barren County Ethics Commission agreed it needed a redo to make it more specific and updated.
James Nelson, the most tenured member of the ethics commission, addressed the Barren County Fiscal Court during its regular meeting in November and provided a copy of Louisville Metro Government’s ethics code as a sort of a template for them to be reviewing.
When he came back Tuesday to gather the court members’ input, it was slow to come.
“I’m hoping you have questions or concerns or comments to help guide us, because we’re going to start having work sessions soon,” he said.
Nelson told the Fiscal Court members he hoped they’d had adequate time to review and compare the two documents. District 4 Magistrate Tommy Matthews, the only one to verbally respond, said he hadn’t, but he would, and Nelson encouraged him to contact him with any suggestions.
“If you have particular likes or dislikes, it’ll save the commission a lot of time in preparing all this stuff, and we’ll come back then with a kind of a prototype of an initial copy and then you can go through that and pick it apart if you need to, but now would be a good time,” Nelson said to the court in general.
He offered as an example the definition of family member, “any person who is a spouse, parent, sibling, child, mother-in-law, father-in-law, son-in-law, on and on,” and asked whether they wanted that definition in the sections regarding financial disclosure statements as well as the one on hiring and nepotism or just one or the other.
“That’s the kind of question I’m hoping to get feedback on,” he said.
He suggested that for the section on financial disclosures, the definition be limited to immediate family, with a definition of who all that would include. Elected officials must report annually any financial involvements that could present a conflict of interest for them as part of both ethics codes. Limiting the definition there would help to eliminate a lot of busywork on the part of county officers when they fill out those financial statements, Nelson said.
District 3 Magistrate Carl Dickerson said the more inclusive definition would probably be too broad for a community this size, as some families could have numerous members.
“It needs to be very immediate when you’re talking about the disclosure statement,” Dickerson said.
With regard to the composition of the ethics commission, Nelson said it has five members, but all of their terms expire at the same time. Louisville Metro has staggered appointments, so some serve one, two or three years, and they have term limits, “and I think that’s a good idea.”
“I think the more that you can involve in the operation of the county, the better off we are,” Nelson said. “I’ve been here 15 years on this, and that’s too long. Not that I’m complaining about anything. It’s been a good run.”
The Louisville code requires at least a training session within 12 months and every 24 months thereafter.
“Any feelings on that?” he asked.
“I think that’s most necessary,” District 6 Magistrate Chris Steward said.
Nelson acknowledged that Steward had expressed concern before about Barren County’s ordinance not having any teeth in it with regard to enforcement of the code, so he asked him how he felt about the proposed enforcement penalties, which includes fines from $25 to $500.
“I think that should be in there,” Steward said.
Nelson asked Steward whether he had had a chance to review Louisville’s version of a complaint affidavit.
During the pause before Steward could answer, Judge-Executive Davie Greer asked whether everyone who was supposed to had submitted their financial disclosure forms, and Nelson said he believed everyone was in compliance.
“I’ve started reading that two or three times, and I became quite sleepy in the process,” Steward said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with it right now.”
Steward, who is the person against whom the later-dismissed claim was made by Jailer Matt Mutter last year, said one thing he would like to see addressed is what happens if the board determines a claim was frivolous or has no merit.
“This is a very powerful weapon that could be used in the hands of someone for political purposes, if they wanted to, to file a frivolous complaint, and they would face no penalties or repercussions, … and that bothers me,” Steward said.
Nelson said he believed that was pretty well spelled out in Louisville’s code.
The complaint has to be sworn before a notary public, and the penalty could be as much as 12 months in jail if it’s deemed to be absolutely false and have no merit to it, he said.
Steward asked whether the commission would have the right to determine that, and Nelson said they would.
Dickerson said he had a couple of other ideas on that aspect of the ordinance about which he would call Nelson later.
No other comments were forthcoming, other than a question about when the commission would be meeting.
Nelson said he could return to fiscal court any time at the members’ request.
“In the meantime, I’m going to start meeting with the commission members and getting this show on the road,” he said.
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