Lexington councilman pushes to block payment to troubled regional agency

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 8, 2013 

Chris Ford, first district councilperson, spoke to students at Booker T. Washington Academy for the Brush Off! rally to help improve children's dental health and raise awareness of Kentucky's growing pediatric dental health disparity on Thursday, February 23, 2012, in Lexington, Ky.

LAURA STRANGE | 2012 STAFF FILE PHOTO — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

A Lexington council member is urging his colleagues to block the annual $75,000 payment the city makes to the Bluegrass Area Development District until the state auditor gives the group a clean bill of health.

Mayor Jim Gray and three other council members contacted by the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday said they planned to support a proposal by Urban County Councilman Chris Ford that would delay payment of the city's annual dues.

Ford said he was disturbed by a series of problems at the district, which started last year with the controversial purchase of a large property on Trent Boulevard to house ex-felons. Questions surrounding that purchase and other issues led to the forced resignation last week of executive director Lenny Stoltz II.

Also last week, State Auditor Adam Edelen announced his office would conduct a special investigation into the district.

What sparked Ford's action, however, was a Herald-Leader article about the interim executive director of the agency rehiring Stoltz as a consultant because Stoltz is the only employee out of 100 who understands the district's accounting system.

The agency helps coordinate regional planning and federal spending among local governments in a 17-county area. Its board of directors is made up of mayors, judge-executives and citizens from member counties. There are 15 area development districts statewide.

"Personally, it saddens me to witness the turn of events" at the district, Ford wrote to his fellow council members in an email Friday.

Ford started his career at the development district based in Louisville, and called the agencies "a great instrument for regionalism and governmental resources."

"However, this recent episode, in my opinion, is shameful and appalling!" Ford wrote. "My initial reaction was infuriation. While I don't refute the interim director's authority, I personally feel his decision is a 'slap in the face' of Central Kentucky taxpayers. Many of these citizens we represent right here in Lexington; some of which have faced great levels of obstructionism in their attempts to transparently interact and obtain information from Bluegrass ADD."

Ford said he would support restarting payments to the district after Edelen concluded his investigation.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is expected to consider Ford's proposal at its work session Tuesday afternoon.

The development district's interim executive director, David Duttlinger, declined to comment Monday on Ford's proposal.

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Gray, said the mayor supported withholding the city's payment "until the concerns about Bluegrass ADD are addressed."

Gray serves on the development district's executive committee and voted against Stoltz's $128,000 severance package because he said it was too generous.

"I've talked to Auditor Adam Edelen, and he says he will examine all the issues and leave no stone unturned," Gray said in a written statement. "In the meantime, Bluegrass ADD must address its financial system. It makes no sense to have a financial system only one person can operate. It creates unacceptable exposure and risk."

Councilman George Myers said he supports Ford's plan and would propose his own resolution demanding that the agency cancel its consulting contract with Stoltz.

"The fact they would bring Mr. Stoltz back on as a consultant says to me that the board is not making decisions that are in the best interest of the tax-paying citizens," he said.

Myers represents the River Park Neighborhood Association, which successfully opposed the felon re-entry program on Trent Boulevard. In the wake of the neighborhood association's efforts, Attorney General Jack Conway ruled that the district did not have the authority to run a felon re-entry program and that the agency had to release documents about the program under the state's Open Records Act.

Councilwoman Shevawn Akers and councilman Bill Farmer also said they supported Ford's proposal.

"As a funding organization responsible for the stewardship of Fayette County tax dollars, LFUCG should not continue to support an organization that continues to violate the public's trust and thumbs its nose at ethics and accountability," Akers said.

Farmer said the decision to rehire Stoltz "doesn't pass the smell test."

"It would be prudent for us to take a step back," he said.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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