Bevin overreaches again

Other governors figured out how to bring in new boards to give public universities “fresh starts” without raising questions about the legality of their actions.

Not Matt Bevin, who waved his scepter and whisked away the University of Louisville’s board and president, or so it appeared through the fog of intrigue surrounding his Friday morning announcement.

On Friday afternoon, Bevin rewrote the law governing the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees, prompting a public retirees group to call on “the legitimate KRS board” to challenge the governor in court.

Bevin’s goals are fine, to the limited extent they are known. He said nothing about reforming the secretive foundation that wields so much power at U of L, nor did he specify his complaints about the U of L board. But after a string of scandals, U of L’s conflict-ridden governance would no doubt benefit from President James Ramsey’s departure and a fresh start. And KRS should publicly disclose investment holdings, fees and commissions, as Bevin ordered.

But Bevin’s pattern of overreach — and it is definitely a pattern — creates unhelpful distractions and may prove to be the ultimate in self-sabotage by the new Republican governor.

Compare Bevin’s approach with how earlier governors handled higher-education crises. In 1986, Gov. Martha Layne Collins asked the governor-appointed members of the Morehead State University board to resign, and in 1989 Gov. Wallace Wilkinson made the same request of Kentucky State University regents. The governors got the resignations. The new boards went on to hire new presidents for the universities.

Bevin, by contrast, thinks he can unilaterally abolish the U of L board then recreate it with 13 rather than 20 members, changes only the legislature can make. As an afterthought or perhaps in response to questions, the governor’s office belatedly issued a release saying that the reorganization would be subject to approval by the 2017 legislature. Bevin said he didn’t inform U of L trustees of his plans. He also said he might re-appoint some of them after the usual vetting process.

The difference between how earlier governors used their power and how Bevin abused his may strike some as too fine a distinction. But it’s not. While governors appoint the majority of public university boards, the law, as well as best practices, dictate that boards should be insulated and as independent as possible from politics. A board that knows it can be wiped out by executive fiat will be looking over its shoulder when it should be looking out for the long-term interests of the university.

The same is true of the public retirement systems board; the law created it to provide independent oversight. Bevin’s order would dilute the power of retirement board members elected by public employees and retirees by increasing gubernatorial appointees.

Whether either action will be challenged in court, we don’t know. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear called Bevin’s actions “unprecedented” and said his office is reviewing them. State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said Bevin’s U of L action is illegal and potentially harmful.

Bevin said that Ramsey would be “standing down.” But the wording of Ramsey’s letter to Bevin raised questions in some minds. Ramsey wrote: “ . . . upon a legal restructure of the Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville, I will immediately offer, to the newly appointed board, my resignation/retirement as President of the University of Louisville.”

It’s not clear the restructure is “legal” or that the new board would accept Ramsey’s resignation.

The course that Bevin is charting for U of L’s governance is just as unclear. But, as ousted trustee Emily Bingham, said, “the responsibility now falls squarely” on Bevin’s shoulders.