Keep legislators out of merit hearing; ethics commission must draw line

It's confusing and embarrassing that the Kentucky Personnel Board found no problem with House Democratic Majority Leader Rocky Adkins' calling and writing a high-ranking official to support a candidate for a job in the state merit system.

It's particularly troubling because after those contacts that official, Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson, overturned a promotion made at the prison level based on evaluations by two panels, and gave the job instead to the candidate Adkins endorsed.

The Personnel Board did at least rule that the promotion be set aside and the position re-opened.

However, even that bone is meager consolation considering that the hearing officer in the case recommended that the candidate originally promoted be given the job and Adkins' friend unseated.

Personnel Board executive director Mark Sipek defended the non-action on Adkins, saying the board's job is to address hiring issues not to police legislators.

While that seems a little delicate coming from a group charged with protecting the integrity of the merit hiring system, it does lead us to the agency that should be policing legislators, the Legislative Ethics Commission.

In 1993, that commission issued a ruling saying it's OK for members of the General Assembly to weigh in on merit hiring decisions, using the peculiar reasoning that in so doing a legislator is "engaged in providing information to the agency on a perspective (sic) employee rather than seeking to influence the agency to act contrary to the public interest."

It doesn't take a very cynical person to see that an agency official — whose budget is overseen by the legislature — might be more likely to interpret such a communication as an attempt to influence the decision rather than an innocent sharing of information.

Surely many legislators would be happy to have a rule saying they can't dabble in merit hiring decisions to fall back on when voters call to ask for their help.

More importantly, the public would be spared nagging suspicions that their tax dollars are paying the salaries of people who gained their jobs through political influence rather than merit, as the system's moniker implies.

Kentucky has many intransigent problems that are complex and hard to solve. This isn't one of them. The Legislative Ethics Commission should take action quickly.