Op-Ed

Kentucky voices: Fund citizen's advocate office

Recently, our family celebrated the birth and death anniversaries of my father, former council member and Citizens' Advocate John Wigginton. How eerily ironic it was to find the Urban County Council debating at that time the future of the advocate position he so passionately worked for, believed in and died doing.

The debate was whether to fund the office. The tenor and limited scope of the debates has been both disheartening and disturbing.

Of the literal thousands of positions within the Urban County Government, only a handful are named in its charter. The citizens' advocate is one. That should give pause to anyone seeking to eliminate or financially incapacitate it, especially a mayor and council created and empowered by the same document.

In creating a new merged government, inherent imbalances were recognized. One branch is led by a full-time mayor backed by an army of professional commissioners, while the other is headed by a part-time vice-mayor just ahead of a council of part-timers. Charter framers wisely recognized the executive branch needed to be tempered to ward off abuse.

The citizens' advocate is a full-time position that reports to council and is not appointed by the mayor. It is an ombudsman position with a watchdog function. Charter framers deemed it "an independent agent through whom they [citizens] can seek redress of their grievances."

A primary reason given for not funding the office has been budget woes. In my 12 years since first serving on council, there has been only one year where a mayor did not declare the economic conditions somewhere between bad to woeful — the year the city looked to buy the water company.

Truth is, city revenues have climbed every year, often outpacing inflation and national averages. And the systematic dismantling of the office over the past two years makes a justification about recent economic trends hard to swallow.

In 2008, council promised to give the office more guidance and oversight. Since then, it fired the last advocate with no plausible explanation, kept the position vacant more than a year, and left the office's lone support staffer to fend for herself. The advocate position has yet to be advertised or posted.

To render the office so impotent and then complain that no one is using it is beyond ludicrous. Besides, what else would be expected of potential complainants who just watched the decapitation of the office?

Judging the office by the number of complaints is like deciding whether to have a fire station due to the number of calls. A better barometer might be the rise and fall of the number of lawsuits brought against the city — an employee's and citizen's last resort.

Citizens are well aware of apparent abuses of the public trust. The Herald-Leader has dedicated barrels of ink to ethical concerns regarding the Blue Grass Airport Board, Kentucky League of Cities, and many other real or perceived public institutions.

Still fresh on taxpayers minds should be the sizeable sum a previous mayor and council expended just trying to investigate one suspected abuse within the government.

Perhaps one day our city will be immune to power grabs, abuses and discrimination. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Such reality calls for beefing-up, rather than dismantling, the city's checks-and-balances system.

The idea of defunding the advocate's office is nothing new. As a result, there is a decade-old legal opinion declaring the position must either be funded or eliminated by a charter amendment. Still, Mayor Jim Newberry tried to balance his budget by zeroing out the advocate's office. The Herald-Leader called that move a "bad idea." Council overruled the idea and funded the office anyway. Both got it right.

Now, our new mayor looks to repeat his predecessor's mistake. I am surprised this innovative mayor would follow such a worn path shown to go nowhere. I am shocked his first budget functionally calls for further silencing this voice of the people.

It was a bad idea then; it is a bad idea now. For once, my hope is that history repeats itself.

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