Pass bill to shine light on ADDs

The Senate has a chance to strike a blow for government accountability and transparency in the waning days of this legislative session by passing House Bill 438.

This measure, sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, requires the 15 Kentucky area development districts to be responsible stewards of the public money they spend and to report on what they’re doing. Westrom and others have made it clear that some ADDs already play by the rules. Others don’t.

The point is to assure that all the ADDs — which together control about $175 million in federal and state money — operate with the public’s interest in mind.

The surest way to do that is to bring their operations out into the open, where legislators and the public can see how they’re spending those tax dollars and what they accomplish with them.

The ADDs were established in the 1970s to help regions plan for issues that overlapped county lines and to prepare grants. That mission has changed over the years so that now the ADDs administer a lot of money, mostly for workforce development and services for the aging.

Westrom’s interest in the ADDs grew out of her advocacy for a Lexington neighborhood group that began asking questions about a project the Bluegrass ADD planned for their area. Their inquiry wound up uncovering a hornet’s nest of mismanagement that led to a blistering 2014 state audit that’s now led to a federal investigation.

In South Central Kentucky the Barren River Area Development District, or BRADD, has come under fire. The Kentucky Department of Aging and Independent Living recently ordered BRADD to repay more than $80,000 paid in staff bonuses — which are not allowed under state law — during a five-year period.

Westrom’s bill requires ADDs to follow some very basic procedures in hiring, such as advertising executive director positions, prohibits bonuses and requires employees and the boards that oversee the ADDs to comply with state and federal conflict of interest and procurement laws.

It also requires the state agencies that administer the federal monies — the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet — to make detailed annual reports on money awarded to each ADD, how much was allocated to services and to administration and how much, if any, was returned.

This information would be compiled and reviewed by appropriate legislative committees.

In her testimony before the House State Government Committee, Westrom said some ADDs operate well and appropriately and this legislation “will shine good light” on them while it will “bring others out of the shadows.”

Unfortunately, a provision to require the state auditor to conduct an examination of each ADD, its policies, procedures and financial activities, was removed in the House.

At this juncture in the session it is probably too much to hope that it will be restored, but the Senate can take a big step toward accountability by taking up and passing the version that cleared the House Tuesday 92 to 6.