FRANKFORT – The Kentucky Personnel Board voted unanimously Friday to investigate whether the state Department of Agriculture illegally placed two political appointees in protected merit positions.
The vote came at the request of the board's vice chairman, Larry B. Gillis, after nearly an hourlong session.
Gillis, who was elected by state workers to serve on the board, said the investigation is needed to determine whether Danita Fentress-Lair and Kathryn Willis were moved late last year from appointed positions as division directors into merit positions as assistant directors without following proper procedures.
Gillis, who had applied for the jobs in question and also serves as assistant director of the Personnel Cabinet, claims the move has the appearance of pre-selection and an effort to burrow the workers into the merit system.
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The merit system protects workers from being dismissed without cause. Political appointees, also called non-merit workers, serve at the pleasure of their appointing officer.
Gillis told the board that his request had nothing to do with politics and that he actually would prefer that the case involved another agency and not the agriculture department.
State Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer is running for lieutenant governor this year on the Republican ticket of gubernatorial nominee David Williams. Farmer's term as commissioner ends this year.
Gillis noted that his request for the investigation made no mention of Farmer.
Gillis said he believes the agriculture department wanted the two women in protected merit positions and off of a 12-month probationary period before a new commissioner takes office in January.
Nicole Liberto, general counsel for the agriculture department, said she had no comment about the board's decision to investigate the hirings.
She told the board that the hirings had been approved by the state Personnel Cabinet. The cabinet is charged with attracting and developing a strong workforce in state government. The Personnel Board tries to safeguard the merit system for state workers who are not politically appointed.
Board chairman Suzanne Cassidy asked its executive director, Mark A. Sipek, and general counsel, Andy Crocker, to come up with recommendations on how the investigation should proceed for the board's July meeting.
Gillis said he did not expect it to last more than a few months.
If the investigation determines pre-selection occurred and the agriculture department did not follow the law, the positions in question should be vacated, Gillis said.
All the board members voted for the investigation except David B. Stevens, who was not present for the meeting.