Politics & Government

Push to eliminate judge-executive job in Fayette gets mixed response

John Larson spoke to supporters after being elected Fayette Co. Judge Executive during a Republican election night party at the Campbell House in Lexington, Ky on Tuesday Nov. 2, 2010. Photo by Pablo Alcala
John Larson spoke to supporters after being elected Fayette Co. Judge Executive during a Republican election night party at the Campbell House in Lexington, Ky on Tuesday Nov. 2, 2010. Photo by Pablo Alcala

Newly elected Fayette County Judge Executive Jon Larson ran on the platform of working to abolish his office, which for more than three decades has been criticized as unnecessary in Lexington.

Getting rid of an office where the duties are mostly obsolete might seem like a no-brainer, but response to his message of "we could do without this office" has been mixed, Larson said.

Eliminating the position requires a constitutional amendment that must win approval of the Kentucky General Assembly and voters.

Some lawmakers are voicing support for an amendment sponsored by state Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, that would do away with the office in Fayette and Jefferson counties. But two legislators whose opinion carries the heaviest weight, Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, would not say whether they support or oppose House Bill 45.

Williams, R-Burkesville, said only that "if HB 45 passes the House of Representatives, it will be considered by the appropriate committee in the Senate." Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, had no comment, said spokesman Brian Wilkerson.

Larson's counterpart in Louisville, Jefferson County Judge-Executive Bryan Mathews, opposes the bill.

Mathews said in an interview he wants to keep his office even though he makes no salary and has few duties.

In all other Kentucky counties, the county judge-executive wields much of the power in local government. But when Lexington and Fayette County merged in 1974, the duties and power of several elected county positions were diminished. Jefferson County has since established a merged city-county government similar to Fayette's.

The Fayette County judge-executive makes an annual salary of about $8,000 for duties that include swearing in deputies and airport police, authorizing the sheriff's department to go out of state to pick up prisoners, appointing members of the board of assessment appeals, and appointing replacements when someone vacates a county office.

County commissioners and the judge-executive make up the Fayette County Fiscal Court. It votes each year on a county road budget, which in 2011 was $1.45 million.

"All of these things could and should ... be done by the city government," Larson said.

In Louisville, Mathews said his duties are limited to serving on boards and commissions. But he is opposed to Farmer's bill because he thinks constitutional amendments should be reserved for issues that affect voters' quality of life.

Also, Mathews said he wants to continue representing Jefferson County at statewide judge-executive meetings and serving on some boards, such as the Kentucky Derby Festival and a community relations council.

"It's a matter of public service for me," Mathews said.

Democratic Rep. Darryl T. Owens of Louisville, the chairman of a House committee that deals with constitutional amendments, said he supports abolishing the offices in Fayette and Jefferson.

"I see no reason not to call the bill" for a vote, he said.

But Owens said he could not promise at this point: "We have a number of bills and a short session."

There are about 10 constitutional amendments proposed so far for the 2011 General Assembly and the constitution allows no more than four of them to be considered by voters at one time.

If the General Assembly were to approve Farmer's amendment, it would be placed on the statewide ballot in 2012.

Republican Senator Damon Thayer of Georgetown, who heads the State and Local Government Committee, said he would call for a vote if the bill passed the House and was assigned to his committee.

By electing Larson, who unseated longtime Democrat incumbent Sandra Varellas in November, voters in Fayette proved that they want the office abolished, Thayer said.

"It makes a lot of sense to eliminate these unnecessary offices and save taxpayer dollars," he said. "Certainly the voters of Fayette County have spoken on the issue and we should give voters in the rest of the state the opportunity to do so."

Farmer remains optimistic, saying "there's enough interest to get this bill to move" through the General Assembly.

Still, the Kentucky County Judge-Executive Association has decided to oppose the amendment, but members won't aggressively work against it, said executive director Vince Lang. "The group voted to oppose this bill, but it was basically placed as a low priority," Lang said.

The Kentucky Association of Counties is not taking a position on the proposal at this point, but it will closely monitor the bill to make sure no changes are made to it that would be detrimental to other county judge-executives across Kentucky, said executive director Denny Nunnelley.

"The other 118 (counties) don't really care what they do in Fayette and Jefferson," Nunnelley said.

A spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Fischer thinks the county judge-executive office should be abolished in Jefferson, but Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is noncommittal on the issue.

Asked if Gray supports Farmer's bill, Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Gray, said only that "we will incorporate the county judge's limited duties within Urban County Government" if voters approve the amendment.

Meanwhile, Larson said, he will continue to carry out the duties of his elected office. Already, he has gone to training for new county judge-executives and met with state highway officials.