Lexington Vice Mayor Steve Kay wants the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council to examine whether it should request changes to state law or local ordinances to give the council the authority to remove a member for wrongdoing.
Kay said Tuesday during a council committee meeting that he will put the issue into committee. A proposed revamp of the city’s ethics ordinance unveiled during Tuesday’s General Government and Social Services committee meeting failed to address removal from office.
Earlier this year, former Councilwoman Sasha Love Higgins was indicted on five felony charges, including identity theft and forgery, stemming from her employment as a general manager of a Lexington hotel. Higgins remained on the council for several months after she was charged in February. She eventually resigned in late April. Higgins has pleaded not guilty.
After Higgins was charged, the council’s other 14 members received calls and emails from the public questioning why the council couldn’t remove Higgins from office.
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Kay said he thinks the council should at least discuss whether there’s a need to change state law or local ordinances to give the council that authority.
“I think there is a concern that for certain kinds of misconduct, we have no opportunity to act ... to protect the integrity of this body,” Kay said. “I want people who are concerned about this to know that if there is some way we can address it going forward, we will.”
Kay will refer the issue to the General Government and Social Services committee. Kay said he hopes that the discussion will take place this fall. If the council decides that it needs to lobby the legislature for a change in state law, that decision will be made before the legislative session begins in January.
On Tuesday, the general government committee voted to pass changes to the ethics ordinance. Those changes — which have been in the works for more than two years — clarify conflicts of interest and add a provision for general misconduct, among other changes. But the misconduct provision addresses only misconduct directly related to that person’s official duties as a council member or elected official. It doesn’t address whether someone is charged with a crime outside of his or her official duties. The changes to the ordinance will be voted on by the full council this fall.
Councilwoman Angela Evans, who chaired the subcommittee that looked at the changes to the ethics ordinance, said the committee was advised that state law doesn’t give the Lexington ethics commission or the council authority to remove a council member from office. That’s why it wasn’t included in the ethics ordinance changes.
“It was our understanding that we do not have the appropriate authority to do that,” Evans said. “Louisville has the authority to do that, but we do not because we are under a different KRS (Kentucky Revised Statutes) chapter.”
Kay said state law can be amended. “I would like to see this body look at what we could do under existing regulation and/or move to amend so we have that authority,” he said. “I think we need to have a more extensive discussion.”
Councilman Bill Farmer Jr. said he, too, wants to see more teeth in the ordinance to give either the ethics commission or the council authority to remove someone from office. But he also wanted to ensure that removal from office doesn’t supersede a criminal case.
Any changes must be crafted carefully, Farmer said.
“I don’t think we should act before the court proceeding is done,” he said. “I think that could be prejudicial. I do understand the point about protecting the body. I think we are all of one mind here; I think we want to be careful about how that takes place.”