Mayor, vice mayor differ on scandal

Newberry mostly silent while Gray, council push for change

mku@herald-leader.comJanuary 11, 2009 

As an investigation into the expenses of Blue Grass Airport executives captivated the city in recent days, some wonder: Where is Mayor Jim Newberry?

"It concerns me that he's just been silent and has focused his concern more on what the council is doing rather than what the (airport) board's doing," said Urban County Councilman George Myers.

In contrast to a vocal council that has repeatedly called for action, Newberry has issued statements extolling his confidence in the airport board, the group responsible for overseeing the airport.

"No one is going to fault an elected official for being aggressive on something like this with ethical violations or corruption or anything like that," said Richard Fording, a University of Kentucky associate professor of political science. "It does beg the question why he's not been aggressive or more confident about asserting his authority."

Newberry said it isn't his or the council's place to get involved with airport business, even if airport Executive Director Mike Gobb resigned amid allegations that he and others charged thousands of dollars at a Texas strip club to an airport credit card.

State statutes established the airport board as an independent agency and it should be allowed to do its work free of any political involvement, Newberry said.

"We'll all agree that the conduct we've heard about is disgusting, it was appalling, it was grossly inappropriate," Newberry said. "And as far as I'm concerned, the board has taken appropriate action in light of Mr. Gobb's admissions of what he did. And I'm confident as they continue their investigation and learn about what has transpired, that they'll take appropriate steps going forward."

Gobb resigned Jan. 2.

Meanwhile, the council was quick to ask state Auditor Crit Luallen for a review of the airport's finances and expenses after a Herald-Leader report published in November raised questions about Gobb spending more than $200,000 on travel and expenses in a little more than two years.

The council acted again last week after the strip club expenditures were made public. The council asked airport board Chairman Bernard Lovely, who was not chairman at the time of the strip club incident, to step down as chairman and to remove himself from airport activity.

Newberry said he and the council have different perspectives on how to handle the airport situation.

"One of the hallmarks of somebody exercising good leadership is to know the spheres in which you're supposed to operate and the spheres beyond which you are not to go," Newberry said.

Council members are adamant that it is their duty as elected representatives to speak out on the issue.

"The public expects accountability and they expect a public voice that insists on it," said Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who has led the council's efforts. "That's what the council's voice represented."

He noted that the airport board did not begin its internal investigation until after the council asked for an audit.

"It's pretty clear that the council's intervention was pivotal in getting to the bottom of this quicker, faster and in ultimately getting back to where we've got restored faith and confidence in the airport," Gray said.

Politically, it's unclear how the public will react to Newberry's inaction.

"For the average person, what they're taking away from this is that there's a scandal and there's been a response," Fording said.

Reach Michelle Ku at (859) 231-1335 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1335.

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