The hiring of the next executive director at the Kentucky Association of Counties has forced board members to try to balance a desire to improve their oversight with old-school politics.
In the wake of six months of criticism that the KACo board has been too hands off, board members decided not to go along with a search committee's recommendation to hire former state Auditor Ed Hatchett as executive director. Instead, the full board will interview Hatchett and three other finalists Jan. 22.
"I feel more comfortable with it, myself, being able to look into their eyes and ask them questions and make the decision," said board member Mike Miller, Marshall County judge-executive.
Since the board's decision Dec. 28 to delay the hiring, the process has morphed into a political race of sorts, with the four finalists and their representatives openly campaigning for the position and lobbying some board members.
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In addition to Hatchett, the 34-member board will interview Denny Nunnelley, KACo's longtime deputy director; Bill Patrick, executive director of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association; and Tony Wilder, state commissioner of the department for local government.
KACo lobbies for and provides services to counties. KACo's board has scrambled to tighten its financial oversight after state auditors found $3 million in excessive or undocumented spending over three years.
Wolfe County Judge-Executive Raymond Hurst, a member of the search committee and the board of KACo, said the decision to interview candidates instead of accepting the committee's pick wasn't a rebuff of Hatchett, who he says remains a top contender.
"At our board meeting, it was within a vote or two to accept the recommendation to hire him," Hurst said.
But many board members were frustrated that the committee had recommended one person to hire rather than narrowing the field to a few finalists from which the board would choose.
"I see this as a positive sign that the board realizes it has a responsibility and doesn't want to be a rubber stamp for the search committee — or anyone else for that matter," said Pike County Magistrate Chris Harris, KACo's president-elect.
Bath County Judge-Executive Carolyn Belcher, who made the motion for the board to interview the finalists, said board members also saw hiring the executive director as a chance to answer criticism from the public and state Auditor Crit Luallen that the board has been too detached from the big decisions.
"We're wanting to be cautious. We want to do it right," said Belcher, who chairs KACo's new audit committee.
KACo President Rick Smith, a Clark County magistrate, said the board hasn't decided how they will pick from among the finalists — whether it will take a plurality, simple majority or runoff vote. That also will be decided at the Jan. 22 meeting, he said.
Most board members reached by the Herald-Leader said they didn't have a favorite going into the interviews.
"If you could take the best attributes from all four and combine them, there wouldn't be a question about who would be the next executive director," said Smith, the KACo president.
Three bring extensive local government experience. Patrick served as Powell County judge-executive and works with county attorneys. Wilder is a former Boyle County judge-executive and circuit court clerk. And Nunnelley was Woodford County judge-executive and sheriff.
But Wilder and Nunnelley are connected to KACo's past. Nunnelley has served as the organization's deputy for more than 15 years. And under former executive director Bob Arnold, who was forced to resign in September, Nunnelley signed off on $70,486 in expenses in three years that had unclear business purposes, were inadequately documented or deemed excessive by state auditors in an October report.
Wilder, who was the organization's president in 2006, is one of the few KACo leaders who declined to accept a credit card from the organization. But he did sign the 2006 contract extension for Arnold that has been criticized for allowing Arnold to be paid his $178,000 salary this year despite being forced out.
Patrick, a former Democratic Party chairman, backed Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1996, which still rankles Democrats with long memories but gives him credibility with GOP officials.
Hatchett, who cultivated a reputation of integrity during his eight years as state auditor, lacks local government experience.
Hatchett was the target of at least one recent whisper campaign that he would be persona non grata when lobbying House Speaker Greg Stumbo because of hard feelings left over from a 2003 primary for attorney general in which they were candidates.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, denied that and said he isn't backing any of the four.
"When I heard that rumor I got on the phone and talked to some of the board members and told them that in my judgment Ed Hatchett was a fine man, and whoever said that I said that did not tell the truth," Stumbo said, adding that he had offered Hatchett a job after Stumbo became attorney general in January 2004.
Whomever the board picks, officials say, at least the full 34-member board will have asserted itself.
"This way everyone takes the blame or takes the credit," said Hurst of Wolfe County. "It's better that way, really."