Sunday, December 11, 2011

Midway mayor has been at the center of 'righting the ship' at the Kentucky League of Cities

By Dick Yarmy
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Five hundred days ago, news coverage of the Kentucky League of Cities depicted a listing ship, awash in staff executives’ extravagant spending and mismanagement of the organization that provides insurance and many other services to cities.

That ship has been righted, according to Midway Mayor Tom Bozarth, left, and other recently elected officers of the league.

Bozarth, the league's second vice president, said the problems that culminated in the resignation of Sylvia Lovely as executive director were a learning experience for the three new officers. “We were on the executive board when it broke,” he said. “Bottom line is, we didn’t ask enough questions.”

The transition to new leadership was difficult. “We were basically a split board,” he said, with staunch supporters of Lovely on one side and members whom Bozarth considered more objective on the other side. “We started apart,” he said. “Then over the year we came together in the middle, and in the end became a stronger board.”

“Our national search uncovered some good candidates; we decided on Jon Steiner and it’s been a good hire for the league,” Bozarth said. “The attitude of the employees has been like night and day; it’s been a good transition.”

The hiring of Steiner as CEO and an increase in transparency have restored pride to the member cities, KLC President and Paducah Mayor William Paxton said in a news release.

“The executive director hit the ground running,” Lyndon Mayor Susan Barto, the first vice president, said in a telephone interview with the Midway Messenger. “He’s been out to visit two-thirds of the cities and he’s open about everything. Anyone in the general public that wants to know how the KLC runs can go to a meeting ... our records are open and we respond to everything.”

After questions about the management of KLC and the Kentucky Association of Counties, first raised in both cases by the Lexington Herald-Leader, the legislature made them subject to state open-records and open-meetings laws.

Barto said KLC provides products and services to 382 member cities. (Kentucky has 420 cities.) “KLC does nothing but help cities,” she said. “We provide legal advice, legislative programs, lobbying, as well as financial and insurance programs.”

Bozarth said the training provided by the league is critical for small cities like Midway. “People who run for office in small cities have no political experience. They need to reach out and have someone help them learn,” he said. “That’s what the league does.”

Barto called the training “invaluable.” She said she hadn’t been an elected official before becoming mayor of her Jefferson County city, and “ I knew nothing. . . .  I came in as mayor with absolutely no training. They were there to bail me out and give me all the information I needed.”

Bozarth said KLC’s services are a bargain for the dues the cities pay, in Midway’s case $495 a year. “We get that back ten-fold,” he said. “They have the support staff –– it’s like having more employees working for you.”

As examples, Bozarth cited the league’s legal help. “They answer legal questions and provide sample ordinances, cutting down on our legal fees,” he said. For example, league staff helped a recent alcohol ordinance, the insurance discounts for being a drug-free work place and the firefighter grants KLC awarded the city.

Barto also gives the League’s staff high marks. “ They have a remarkable staff,” she said. “They really do care about cities. Members of the staff will work with the individual cities to help develop a personalized master plan, a strategic plan and other concepts to encourage citizen’s involvement.”

Kentucky’s cities and towns have a wide range of sizes and demographics, but have common issues. according to Barto. “Retirement is the biggest issue,” she said. “ If you have a police or fire department you’re paying almost 39 percent in retirement benefits. You have nowhere to pass the buck at the local level –– we have to operate on a balanced budget.”

The league’s accomplishments after the reorganization appear to have been noticed by its members. The last convention had 64 percent more attendance than the previous one. Bozarth credited the increase to a good program, calling out the drug summit in particular. “We addressed problems that were common across the state,” he said.

Bozarth also called attention to KLC’s legislative accomplishments. “We got eight pieces of legislation passed for cities” in this year’s short legislative session,“ he said “We get behind any issue that will impact a city.”

One of those bills allows incentive pay for city officials who get training. Bozarth said that was a good example of legislation bubbling up from the city level: He said Carl Ellis, a Versailles council member, asked state Rep. Carl Rollins of Midway why cities didn’t have a voluntary training program similar to the mandated program offered by the counties’ association. Rollins and Bozarth presented the idea and it was placed on KLC’s legislative agenda. The bill failed to pass the first time, but passed a year later.

Midway and Versailles have passed ordinances implementing the incentive pay. The Midway ordinance was questioned by some council members, but passed. Bozarth considers the passage an accomplishment and places a high value on training. “I believe people should be compensated for getting training,” he said. “They sacrifice a lot of time for just $50 a month,” the salary of a council member.

Bozarth said KLC has “righted the ship” and is going in the right direction. “When we started asking questions and looking into things we got a real education,” he said. “We lost some trust with members, but with the changes we’ve made, we’ve regained that trust.”

1 comment:

Nate said...

Dick, great story my man. Loved working with you. Beers on me next time, sir.

-Nate Courtney