Too much smoke for city's good

All smoke, no fire is Mayor Jim Newberry's description of the dual investigations into a city employee's futile attempts to raise concerns about Lexington's dealings with the Kentucky League of City's insurance arm.

Certainly, there's smoke; we'll await the investigations before deciding about the fire.

Through the smoke, one institutional reform suggests itself: The council should amend the rules for selecting members of the city's internal audit board.

The council in 2002 created the board to coordinate and evaluate internal audits and made the mayor responsible for appointing its five voting members.

Under Newberry, three of the five members have been contributors to his political campaigns, including Newberry's campaign finance chairman, DeWitt Hisle, who was on the audit board before Newberry became mayor and resigned as its chairman after this controversy flared.

Hisle never informed the other audit board members of concerns twice raised during city audits by the city's risk management director, Patrick Johnston.

Two audit board members are, by ordinance, members of the council. But even though some members of the Newberry administration were informed of Johnston's concerns, none of his concerns were communicated to the council or even to the council members on the audit board.

Although the exact nature of Johnston's complaints has not been publicly released, it is known that he voiced concerns about conflicts of interest within KLC's insurance operation, a concern later validated by a state audit. It seems clear, based on documents and e-mails, that Newberry's law director, Logan Askew, was steering the city's business to the League of Cities and squelched Johnston's objections when the deal was presented to the council.

The matter would be of special concern to the council because it must approve the city's insurance contracts.

In retrospect, a full airing of Johnston's concerns would have better served Lexington, though maybe not the League of Cities.

Even now the council is being forced to wage a legal battle against the executive branch of city government to get information that's of obvious interest to the citizens' elected council.

The smoke that Newberry talks about might already have blown over if he had just ordered a full and open accounting of everything.

What also has developed is at least the appearance that the audit board and its chairman performed less as a watchdog of the public's interest and more as a guardian of the mayor's image. Such an appearance is an inherent risk under the current audit board ordinance.

The council can easily repair that by enacting new rules or qualifications to ensure the appearance of an independent audit board.

Convincing the public that city government is operating in the open will be harder.