Tom Eblen

Airport scandal gives pause

The Blue Grass Airport spending scandal has been a talker.

The main reason, of course, is the scandal itself. The airport's handsomely paid executives spent tens of thousands of public dollars on perks for themselves: Wii games, shotguns, lavish travel, scalped Hannah Montana tickets, a $5,000 strip club visit and much more.

Another reason is that many business and civic leaders are shocked and embarrassed by the whole affair, and initial reaction to it. Lexington is, after all, a big small town. After the Herald-Leader broke the story, many instinctively wanted to shoot the messenger.

Mike Gobb, the airport's executive director, was well-known and well-liked. Gobb made a lot of improvements to the airport. But the state audit and criminal investigation are likely to confirm a dark side few in the community suspected.

The airport's unpaid board of directors includes many well-liked and respected citizens. While average people are asking, "Why didn't the board uncover this?" many Lexington leaders are thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I."

A good city needs good citizens, people willing to donate their time, talent and energy to serve in government and on community boards, commissions and task forces. Lexington is blessed with many such citizens.

Tom Martin, editor of Business Lexington magazine, worried in a column last week that the airport scandal might make good citizens think twice before volunteering for public service, lest they become "local talk radio's latest 'public enemy No. 1,' as well as a casualty of the politically ambitious.'"

Like Martin, I hope this scandal won't scare good people away from public service. But it is certainly a wake-up call and an opportunity for Lexington to strengthen oversight of its public institutions.

Auditors should be changed periodically, and audits should look deeper than the overall health of an institution. Impropriety is common enough in both public and private organizations that it's always a good idea to look for it.

For citizens interested in serving on community boards, this scandal shouldn't be a deterrent. But it should be a reminder that such service requires time, attention and diligence. Board members have a responsibility to look deeply into an organization, ask tough questions and demand accountability on the public's behalf.

Perhaps Commerce Lexington or another organization could come up with some "best practices" guidelines for community boards, and offer training for people who serve on them. It's important work, and it must be done well.

Best and worst of times

Mayor Jim Newberry has been criticized for acting more like a lawyer than a leader in response to the airport scandal. But in his annual State of the Merged Government Address, Newberry sounded like a leader — a smart and inspired one, at that.

Speaking Tuesday to the Lexington Forum, Newberry built his speech around the famous "best of times, worst of times" opening line of Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities. While acknowledging the economic crisis, Newberry outlined a progressive vision for Lexington, emphasizing that the next two years could be the most productive and important in the city's history.

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in late 2010 will be an economic boost, and, more important, an event that will shape the world's image of Lexington for decades to come. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan has the potential to give Lexington unprecedented resources to improve its infrastructure and build for a prosperous future.

Newberry has submitted $556 million in worthy projects as candidates for federal stimulus funding. They include such things as renovations of schools and the old Fayette County Courthouse that houses the Lexington History Museum to new streets and sewers for the long-neglected neighborhood that developers hope to transform into the Distillery District. The mayor also outlined plans for making sure that money is spent wisely, and with transparency and public accountability.

The stimulus plan will have no shortage of critics. But they should remember how America benefited from the New Deal infrastructure projects of the 1930s. In many ways, that investment made possible the economic prosperity in the decades that followed.

It's also notable that Newberry's vision for Lexington investment extends beyond the traditional. He talked about the need for bike lanes and trails to make us more healthy and arts programs to improve our quality of life and long-term competitiveness.

With crisis comes opportunity. Let's get to work.

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