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Old, New Council Members Clash

11.18.09 04:19 PM – Andy McDonald
If you happened to catch the Berea City Council meeting Tuesday night, you may have noticed that City Attorney J.T. Gilbert offered a legal opinion about the city’s interpretation of the Kentucky open meetings law.

Gilbert’s opinion stemmed from an Oct. 20 meeting in which Glenn Jennings, chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, excluded three members of the Berea City Council from an executive session of the committee. Ronnie Terrill, Jerry Little and Troy Van Winkle were booted when the committee consulted with the city’s auditor on matters relating to the city’s finances. The three council members are not members of the finance committee.

Gilbert opined that Jennings was technically in violation of the open meetings law, and Jennings accepted that ruling, but cautioned that the city needs to develop some method by which the auditor could pass on confidential information, and thus warn city council members of financial malfeasance.

Case in point: A couple of years back, the city of Berea was the victim of a financial scam when a very able and trusted employee bilked her department for several thousand dollars. The employee managed to do so by exploiting a glitch in the city’s accounting software. The auditors caught it, an investigation was launched, and some of the money was later recovered.

Had news of a prospective investigation become public, it could have allowed said employee to corrupt the computer system, destroy all paper records and otherwise remove any evidence of criminal activity. In that respect, Jennings has a point: when sensitive information is being passed, sometimes secrecy is in the best interests of the city.

The discussion surrounding this issue provides an interesting glimpse into the subtle tension among the members of the current city council.

Jennings, a certified public account by training, has chaired the Audit and Finance Committee for 14 years, and during his tenure, the city has drawn consistently positive assessments from the independent auditor. Year in and year out, the auditor claims that Berea’s financial situation is the envy of municipalities all over Kentucky. Jennings is unquestionably a force in shaping the policies that have sustained the city’s prosperity. As such, when folks hint there might be some funny business going on during his watch, he justifiably takes exception.

Therein lies the source of the tension. The folks who have been on council for a while – Jennings, Virgil Burnside, Vi Farmer, Greg Lakes and Mayor Steve Connelly – suffered the slings and arrows in leading the city to its current status – a town that can afford to provide essential services and still have money in the bank. Longtime incumbents took the heat for diversifying the city’s revenue base by raising taxes. They could have made a purely political decision and kicked the can down the road for future councils. Instead, they bit the bullet, and it turns out they made a gutsy decision in the nick of time – right before the economy caved in.

On the other hand, you’ve got people who were elected to be reformers Ronnie Terrill, Jerry Little, Troy Van Winkle and Billy Wagers. They were elected, I think, on the premise that the city was on the wrong course. Now they are enjoying the fruits of the previous council’s success – presiding over a solvent government without having done much of the heavy lifting.

To paraphrase a line from “A Few Good Men,” Jennings can’t be blamed too much for bristling when the new guys enjoy the financial security the old council provided, and then turn around and question the manner in which the old council provided it.

Was Terrill wrong to question the open meetings act? Absolutely not.
Given the financial crisis that has recently befallen the city of Richmond, one can see how Terrill would think that more information available to more council members is a good thing. After all, council members don’t want to wake up one day to find that the city is insolvent because they were kept in the dark.

The problem, I think, is one of tone.

I’ve sensed a curious mistrust between the new members of the council and longtime incumbents. Troy Van Winkle and Mayor Connelly, for example, seem to talk past each other, not to each other. From the beginning, Terrill has been the contrarian. In this case, he was right, though at other times, I’ve wondered if Terrill has objected to certain policies simply to live up to his role as the “reformer.”

The new guys should absolutely continue to question, especially when confronted with new policy choices. Always be asking: Why? Our neighbors to the north are probably wishing more questions had been asked of their city officials. But when raising questions, both the new and old council members should remember that affable and conciliatory approach that has characterized past Berea city councils. It’s worked before. Why change now?

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