Lexington is weighing changes to local ordinances to reign in Fayette County constables, including increasing the amount of insurance required and possibly upping the amount of oversight and reporting requirements.
A committee of the Urban County Council took no votes on the issue Tuesday but agreed to form a special committee to look at what local governments can do. Constables are constitutional offices and are elected. There have been attempts at the state level to do away with the office all together. So far that legislation has failed in the General Assembly.
Some say the office is no longer needed. Constables and deputy constables have police powers but have no training and very little oversight, opponents said. Louisville passed an ordinance in 2011 that did away with deputy constables.
A June 2016 Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting report showed that constables are not required to have any law enforcement training, unlike city police and deputy sheriffs. The articles showed that many constables and deputy constables have committed crimes, including a former Fayette County deputy constable who pleaded guilty to official misconduct and promoting prostitution.
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Fayette County Constables told the Urban County Council Planning and Public Works Committee Tuesday that they provide a valuable service — they serve eviction notices and civil court summons. They take no tax dollars and earn money through their fees. Much of the complaints about constables are driven by sheriff’s associations who see constables as a threat, said Jim McKenzie, one of three Fayette County constables.
Constables can hire as many deputies as they want, but other branches of law enforcement don’t always know who those deputies are, Lexington police told the council Tuesday. Constables and deputy constables are only required to go through a state background check and have no police training.
That’s a problem, said Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt.
Constables often dress like sheriff’s deputies or Lexington police officers and are peace officers, meaning they can arrest people. Witt said she has seen deputy constables pull over people and not follow proper procedure, putting the officer and the person they pull over in danger.
Her sheriff deputies have to meet “17 different standards before I can even consider them,” Witt said.
Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard agreed. “The (lack of training) is an issue that we see,” Barnard said.
Witt said the state statute also requires constables to file reports with the Fayette County Clerk’s office to detail how much in fees they collect. That has never been done, Witt said.
Moreover, Witt said one deputy constable put emergency lights and sirens in his vehicle, yet no one gave that deputy permission to do so. “We had to go to the county judge executive and have them forcibly removed,” Witt said.
Public Safety Commissioner Ronnie Bastin said the city isn’t sure how many deputies each constable has. The last list his office had was from 2014.
Fayette County Constable Jeff Jacob said constables register deputy constables with the Fayette County clerk’s office. Jacob has 12 deputies, McKenzie has two deputies and Ed Sparks, the third constable, currently has two deputies.
Jacobs said previous constables have tried to file financial reports with the clerk’s office, but the clerk didn’t know what to do with them so they quit filing them.
Several apartment building owners and managers told the council that without the constables, eviction notices would be difficult to serve.
Since Louisville did away with deputy constables, it takes several months now for eviction notices to go through, said Brenda Wells, executive director of the Greater Lexington Apartment Association.
Currently, constables are only required to have a $1,000 bond,. That may not be enough if they are involved in a lawsuit, city officials said. City officials told the committee Tuesday instead of increasing the amount of the bond, the council should consider increasing the amount of insurance for constables. The city pays for the bond and the insurance. Increasing reporting requirements and oversight are other possibilities.
Fayette County has had problems with its deputy constables.
Fayette County Deputy Constable Dannie Ray Pendygraft was sentenced to three years’ probation for official misconduct and promoting prostitution, a felony. The U.S. Department of Justice also accused him last September of violating federal housing law by subjecting a former boarding house tenant to sexual advances.
The federal government alleged that Pendygraft touched the tenant and requested sexual favors from her while wearing his constable’ s badge and carrying a gun. Pendygraft paid a $5,000 fine in September 2015.
The constables told the council committee they would like to meet with the subcommittee as it discusses changes. A date for the subcommittee to meet has not yet been set.