Public board members get oversight training

jcheves@herald-leader.comSeptember 20, 2009 

They read the news stories this year about questionable spending at public organizations, and they saw the outrage that resulted. Now some of Lexington's public board members say they want to do a better job safeguarding the resources with which they're entrusted.

Last Tuesday, about 80 board members representing 17 institutions attended the first training session organized by Mayor Jim Newberry. The session followed a series of Herald-Leader articles about expenses at several agencies, including Blue Grass Airport and the Lexington Public Library.

Attendance by members of 17 community boards was encouraged by the mayor. Future appointees will be required to attend the training sessions.

Newberry, who appoints most of the board members, said volunteers who agree to oversee public organizations usually have good intentions. But they might not understand the full scope of their responsibilities, he said.

In the two-hour session, board members heard about their oversight duties, including questioning their agency's executives; the state's open records and open meetings laws, which require transparency where public funds are spent; and how to create internal controls to prevent misspending by executives.

"It never ceases to amaze me. People come in thinking they know everything they need to know about board service, and they walk out having learned something new," said one of the teachers, Danielle Clore, director of the University of Kentucky's Non-profit Leadership Initiative.

One attendee, Rick Christman of the Transit Authority board, said he sympathized with his counterparts on the airport and library boards when spending controversies erupted. Especially at the airport, he thought it was clear that board members were stunned to discover how executives were spending the airport's money, he said.

"There's a lot more attention, a lot more scrutiny, of what our quasi-governmental organizations are doing now and how well they're overseen. And yeah, I think that's largely a positive thing," Christman said.

That said, there is a risk that too much scrutiny could discourage people from serving on community boards or taking executive jobs that report to boards, he added.

"In the very competitive marketplace for executive talent, if someone knows that coming to Lexington means they'll be criticized for which restaurant they prefer for lunch, they might just choose to go somewhere else," Christman said.

Marilyn Clark of the Lexington Center Corp. board said Tuesday's session offered useful if basic ideas for civic volunteers who are not experienced at running an institution.

Clark said board members must ask the chief executive probing questions, which requires a level of assertiveness that some find uncomfortable or impossible if they don't know enough about the subject at hand.

"We cover a lot of detailed information at meetings," Clark said. "You have to ask your questions right there if you don't know or understand something. That's your opportunity. So you need to make sure you get and read the information before you go to the meeting so you can have your questions prepared."

Tuesday's session was a good start, Clore said, but because it was a general presentation for everyone, she hopes the organizations continue their board training individually. One two-hour class is not enough, she said.

"What the Explorium board needs to know doesn't cover everything that the LexTran board needs to know," Clore said. "I hope they pick up the ball and run with it."

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