A committee of the Lexington city council voted against pursuing a change in state law that would allow the council to remove a member for misconduct.
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council’s lack of legal authority to punish or remove one of its own members surfaced last year when former Councilwoman Sasha Love Higgins was charged with several felonies in connection with her job as a manager of a Lexington hotel.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay told the council’s General Government and Social Service Committee Tuesday that state law would have to be changed before the council could establish a process for remove one of its own. Kay had proposed asking the legislature for that authority in the 2019 legislative session. The Louisville Metro Council already has the ability to remove a member for misconduct.
Several council members, though, said they were uncomfortable with the 15-member council having the authority and responsibility to police each other. The committee ultimately voted 5-to-4 to not pursue the issue further.
Higgins was accused in February 2017 of diverting payroll checks in the name of a former employee. She did not step down until after she was indicted by a grand jury in late April, nearly three months after she was originally charged. During that time, other council members were besieged with questions from their constituents about why the council did not remove Higgins.
Higgins, who was first elected in November 2016, later pleaded guilty to several felonies.
Councilwoman Angela Evans said during Tuesday’s meeting that she didn’t think it was appropriate for the council to remove an elected official.
“I’m not quite sure if I want this body to have that authority,” Evans said. “I think the authority lies within the constituents or voters in that district.”
Councilman Fred Brown said the merged government has operated well enough since 1974 without the authority to remove a council member. Brown said he thinks there are ways to use the judicial system to remove a troublesome council member.
Councilman Richard Moloney said he would prefer the Urban County Ethics Commission have the authority to remove a council member.
Kay said he pushed for the changes after so many constituents were shocked that Higgins could not be removed from office.
“We were in a situation where we could have had someone on council who was convicted of a serious crime and remained on council,” Kay said. “People in the community were surprised that if that had occurred that we could not do anything about it.”
In Louisville, the Metro Council initiated a trial in July against longtime Councilman Dan Johnson over multiple sexual harassment allegations. Johnson was ultimately removed from the council in November after violating a controversial deal that allowed him to keep his seat.
The Kentucky legislature also has wrestled with how to deal with misconduct by its members. The state Legislative Ethics Commission has set a hearing for April 4 over sexual harassment allegations against four House members, all of whom have refused to resign their seats.
Council members in support of seeking legal authority to remove a member were Kay, James Brown, Joseph Smith and Peggy Henson. Council members who voted against it were Evans, Fred Brown, Moloney, Bill Farmer Jr., and Susan Lamb.