Louisville Officials Won’t Release Spending Records Amid Pandemic Tuesday, Apr 7 2020 

Louisville Metro Government officials are refusing to disclose documentation that would show how public money is being spent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting on March 31 requested all contracts, purchase orders and invoices recorded since March 6. In a response on Monday, city officials denied the request for documents that would shed light on government spending since Kentucky’s first coronavirus case, and Gov. Andy Beshear’s declaration of a state of emergency.

City officials said fulfilling the request for about three weeks of spending records would create an “unreasonable burden” on the government agency.

“The staff necessary to respond to this request are also devoted to assisting in the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; thus, it would be a burden not only to them, but also to the residents of Louisville Metro relying on Metro’s work if they were to respond to this request at this time,” the response stated.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer last week said city officials had spent about $3 million in response to the pandemic, which includes costs for personnel and personal protective equipment and an expanded meals program for seniors. Specific details about those costs, and other governmental spending during the pandemic however, remain unknown.

Michael Abate, a Louisville attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said the public has the right to know how funds are spent even during the pandemic.

“Times like this require more transparency, not less, in order for people to have confidence in government,” he said. “It’s completely inappropriate for the city to just deny an Open Records Request because of the pandemic.”

Under state law, government agencies are required to make public records available for inspection upon request. The law does provide some exemptions for records that include personal information or those that could expose the government to terrorism, among others.

Normally, agencies have three business days to respond to records requests. That doesn’t mean the agency is expected to produce the records in three days — just that the agency needs to say whether it will fulfill the request and, if it’s granted, estimate how long it will take.

State legislators last month passed a measure to extend the timeframe an agency has to respond to a request amid the pandemic to 10 days.

Abate, who has represented KyCIR and other media outlets on public record issues, said the extension is a reasonable amendment to the state’s Open Records Act, given the spreading pandemic. But, he stressed, the law still stands and public agencies must comply.

“They can’t ignore their duties under the law, and tell people they can govern in secret,” Abate said.

A spokesperson for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fischer has long touted the city’s commitment to transparency and garnered national acclaim in 2013 when he ordered “public information to be open by default.” But an online database of spending records is outdated, the most recent records listed available are from the 2018 fiscal year.

And as the pandemic continues, city officials have demanded questions about the response come in the form of a formal records request.

But in the response to KyCIR’s request for spending records, city officials said the Louisville Metro Government processes thousands of invoices each month and the staff needed to fulfill the request are working remotely.

“Thus making it even more difficult to comply with such a broad request,” the officials said.

But the city’s claim that fulfilling the request would create an unreasonable burden on the agency is “pretty flimsy,” said Amye Bensenhaver, the director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.

Bensenhaver, a former attorney with the Attorney General’s open records division, pointed to a 2017 case in which the requester asked a university for any public records that referenced her by name as an example of one that posed an unreasonable burden.

Bensenhaver said courts have upheld that a request for public records cannot be considered an unreasonable burden simply because it requires added time or work to fulfill.

“They have to show the burden by clear and convincing evidence,” she said. “There’s nothing specific why this particular request poses a challenge.”

Spending records are oftentimes simple requests to fulfill because they are kept electronically and require little redaction, Bensenhaver said.

Some delays in fulfilling requests and provided records are expected and government agencies do deserve a bit of leniency as they work amid the spreading pandemic, she said.

But she said the leniency ends when an agency “erects an impenetrable barrier” by not honoring a request.

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Louisville Officials Won’t Release Spending Records Amid Pandemic Tuesday, Apr 7 2020 

Louisville Metro Government officials are refusing to disclose documentation that would show how public money is being spent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting on March 31 requested all contracts, purchase orders and invoices recorded since March 6. In a response on Monday, city officials denied the request for documents that would shed light on government spending since Kentucky’s first coronavirus case, and Gov. Andy Beshear’s declaration of a state of emergency.

City officials said fulfilling the request for about three weeks of spending records would create an “unreasonable burden” on the government agency.

“The staff necessary to respond to this request are also devoted to assisting in the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; thus, it would be a burden not only to them, but also to the residents of Louisville Metro relying on Metro’s work if they were to respond to this request at this time,” the response stated.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer last week said city officials had spent about $3 million in response to the pandemic, which includes costs for personnel and personal protective equipment and an expanded meals program for seniors. Specific details about those costs, and other governmental spending during the pandemic however, remain unknown.

Michael Abate, a Louisville attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said the public has the right to know how funds are spent even during the pandemic.

“Times like this require more transparency, not less, in order for people to have confidence in government,” he said. “It’s completely inappropriate for the city to just deny an Open Records Request because of the pandemic.”

Under state law, government agencies are required to make public records available for inspection upon request. The law does provide some exemptions for records that include personal information or those that could expose the government to terrorism, among others.

Normally, agencies have three business days to respond to records requests. That doesn’t mean the agency is expected to produce the records in three days — just that the agency needs to say whether it will fulfill the request and, if it’s granted, estimate how long it will take.

State legislators last month passed a measure to extend the timeframe an agency has to respond to a request amid the pandemic to 10 days.

Abate, who has represented KyCIR and other media outlets on public record issues, said the extension is a reasonable amendment to the state’s Open Records Act, given the spreading pandemic. But, he stressed, the law still stands and public agencies must comply.

“They can’t ignore their duties under the law, and tell people they can govern in secret,” Abate said.

A spokesperson for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fischer has long touted the city’s commitment to transparency and garnered national acclaim in 2013 when he ordered “public information to be open by default.” But an online database of spending records is outdated, the most recent records listed available are from the 2018 fiscal year.

And as the pandemic continues, city officials have demanded questions about the response come in the form of a formal records request.

But in the response to KyCIR’s request for spending records, city officials said the Louisville Metro Government processes thousands of invoices each month and the staff needed to fulfill the request are working remotely.

“Thus making it even more difficult to comply with such a broad request,” the officials said.

But the city’s claim that fulfilling the request would create an unreasonable burden on the agency is “pretty flimsy,” said Amye Bensenhaver, the director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.

Bensenhaver, a former attorney with the Attorney General’s open records division, pointed to a 2017 case in which the requester asked a university for any public records that referenced her by name as an example of one that posed an unreasonable burden.

Bensenhaver said courts have upheld that a request for public records cannot be considered an unreasonable burden simply because it requires added time or work to fulfill.

“They have to show the burden by clear and convincing evidence,” she said. “There’s nothing specific why this particular request poses a challenge.”

Spending records are oftentimes simple requests to fulfill because they are kept electronically and require little redaction, Bensenhaver said.

Some delays in fulfilling requests and provided records are expected and government agencies do deserve a bit of leniency as they work amid the spreading pandemic, she said.

But she said the leniency ends when an agency “erects an impenetrable barrier” by not honoring a request.

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

The post Louisville Officials Won’t Release Spending Records Amid Pandemic appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Louisville Metro Could Soon Be More Friendly To LGBT Business Owners Friday, Nov 22 2019 

When Louisville Metro requests bids for government contracts, it already makes an effort with women-, minority- and disabled-owned businesses. And soon lawmakers could consider expanding that opportunity to businesses owned and run by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The Metro Council could soon consider a change to its ordinance that codifies how it solicits bids from minority groups. The proposal, entered this week, seeks to include certified LGBT businesses in its efforts.

Cyndi Masters, the CEO and founder of digital agency DBS Interactive and a member of Louisville’s gay and lesbian chamber of commerce, said the change in language is validating. And she said it will be good for the city.

“It’s really smart, it’s really smart,” Masters said. “There’s a lot of loyalty from these marginalized communities, so when you include me, I’m pretty loyal to you. Especially if you included me before it was popular.”

Right now Louisville dedicates a small percentage of its business spending, which is known as procurement, to companies owned by women, minorities and disabled people. The new ordinance would specifically encourage proposals from LGBT-owned businesses, and would include dedicated outreach to those owners.

Jonathan Lovitz of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which is the body that certifies LGBT businesses, said they add about $1.7 trillion to the U.S. economy each year. So he said inviting them to the table makes good business sense.

“One of the problems and the reason that supplier diversity programs like this were established was because of the historic biases and discriminatory practices that so many communities felt… too often, the contract went to the golfing buddy of the procurement officer,” he said.

Lovitz said more and more cities are codifying efforts to contract with LGBT business owners. Just this year, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tampa have taken this kind of step. He said Louisville doing the same could send a message to the rest of Kentucky.

Although the city is known for its LGBTQ-friendliness, the same is not necessarily true of the state. Case in point: In 2017, the California attorney general banned state-funded travel to Kentucky over a law he said could lead to anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Lovitz said that if Louisville adopts this ordinance change, it would signal an embrace of America’s diverse economic future. And with Democrat Andy Beshear taking office as governor next month, Lovitz sees more opportunities.

“We are very excited at the NGLCC to work with the new governor, as we have with governors across the country in adding not just LGBT- but disability- and veteran-owned businesses, who are usually the three categories left out of state procurement,” he said.

Louisville’s ordinance already covers businesses owned by disabled people, including a goal of spending half a percent of its procurement budget with them. But the ordinance still refers to that group as “handicapped.” The proposal filed this week seeks to update that language to say “disabled,” instead.

For business owner Cyndi Masters, who is also disabled, it’s an overdue change.

“Thank God. Thank God,” she said. “What an archaic word.”

She previously registered her business with the gay and lesbian chamber, as well as Disability:IN, which certifies disabled-owned businesses.

“Handicapped, it just has a negative connotation. It’s a belittling word,” she said.

Louisville Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green (D-1) introduced the ordinance this week. She said it’s common sense, and good for Louisville.

“We want to send a message that not only is it the right thing to do, but it is good business practice to be welcome to all businesses, no matter who they’re owned by,” she said.

The Community Affairs Committee will most likely consider the ordinance in December, following the Thanksgiving break.

Mayor Fischer Talks Challenges, Development Plan For Next Three Years Friday, Oct 18 2019 

Listen to the episode:


Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s third and final term is well underway. On WFPL’s In Conversation Friday, Fischer said issues like the city’s lean budget and climate change present new challenges and opportunities for Louisville to tackle.

Host Rick Howlett (Left) and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (right)Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

Host Rick Howlett (Left) and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (right)

Fischer was asked about a number of issues during the show, including morale among Louisville Metro Police, his declaration of a climate crisis in Louisville and revenue options for the city. On climate, Fischer said the city is taking part in multiple projects working to slow the effects of climate change. He said everybody can help by planting trees.

“The problem is so large, relative to climate change, that it’s not something that government is going to be able to fix in and of itself,” Fischer said. “So I would just encourage everybody, in a city our size of almost 800,000 people, plant a couple of trees a year.”

But the city’s budget, which was cut by $25 million due in part to Kentucky’s ailing pension systems, could hamper such efforts. Fischer said state legislators should give Louisville more control over its laws and revenue options so it can have more alternatives to fill its budget shortfalls. 

“About half of the tax revenue that we produce in our city goes to other areas of the state,” Fischer said. “So the more freedom that we have, I think the more we will grow. The more we grow, the more that helps the commonwealth, obviously.”

Join us next week for In Conversation as we talk with Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andy Beshear. 

Renewable Energy Resolution Back Before Louisville Metro Council Thursday, Oct 17 2019 

Louisville Metro is again considering a resolution to transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy in the coming decades.

On Thursday, the Parks and Sustainability Committee heard the latest version of the measure, which is largely the same as the original. The goal is to commit the city to a scheduled transition reaching 100 percent renewable energy for city operations by 2030 and the entire community by 2040.

“This is the first truly global challenge that we, as people, have ever had and we are fighting it on the municipal level at this point,” said Sam Avery, an advocate with the Renewable Energy Alliance of Louisville who helped draft the resolution.

The resolution also calls for revisions to the city’s building codes, new regulations for energy efficiency and programs that benefit low-income residents.  As a resolution, the measure is non-binding and could be ignored, but Avery said that’s where the community has to step in to hold city officials accountable.

More than 100 other cities across the country, including Cincinnati and Atlanta, have committed to similar goals.

Back in September, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer declared a “climate emergency” but so far, the city’s plan does not match with the science.

Louisville Metro wants to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 — a plan scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say is too slow to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

“What it allows LG&E to do is to burn coal for another 20 years into the 2040s, by that time the Arctic ice cap will be gone and LG&E will still be spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Avery said.

Louisville Gas & Electric didn’t immediately return a request for comment. However, representatives have said that the road to 100 percent renewable energy would require overcoming a number of different hurdles including scaling renewables and energy storage.

An earlier version of the resolution died in committee this spring after the council failed to act on it within six months. Also, Metro Council President David James withdrew sponsorship to avoid an ethical conflict because of his wife’s work with LG&E.

The committee tabled the bill on Thursday, but has another hearing scheduled for October 31.

As Another Russell Project Begins, Gentrification Concerns Prevalent Wednesday, Sep 25 2019 

A group of vacant warehouses near 30th and Muhammad Ali in the Russell neighborhood could soon be given new life.

The city acquired the properties in 2017. Now, officials are looking for ideas on how to redevelop the 220,000 square feet contained therein.

It’s the latest project in a string of massive investments going into Russell, a neighborhood in west Louisville that has long lacked commercial development as a result of racist government policies. That fact, along with the renewed interest, has raised concerns among residents and public officials about gentrification and subsequent displacement.

Mariah Washington lives near the vacant warehouses. The 19-year-old said she would like to see something nice for the kids in her neighborhood, who have to contend with the dangers of gun violence. Washington would like to see something fun for them. A waterpark, perhaps.

“I want it to be this to be a place where kids can actually come and be involved in life and help them grow to something better,” she said.

At the same time, she said she is worried about the possibility of rents going up a concern other Russell residents share as well.

Washington said she hopes the redevelopment won’t raise rents, push people out and let outsiders “take over” more of her neighborhood.

She was one of a few local residents who attended a small press conference Wednesday afternoon, where city officials announced a donation of services by global design consultancy Arcadis, which has an office in Louisville. That agency has completed a 3D scan of the buildings, which the city can use like a blueprint to develop future plans.

Washington believes Russell residents should be a part of those plans. She is planning to gather her neighbors’ ideas and present them to the leaders of Russell: A Place of Promise. That’s an initiative run in partnership with the city, which will gather community feedback for the project through a door-knocking campaign and at a public meeting on Oct. 4 from 2 to 6 p.m. at Roosevelt-Perry Elementary School.

“This is our home,” Washington said. “I feel like we should be able to be comfortable with where we live and not feel like everything is just being changed and one day, they’re going to end up getting rid of us.”

Amina Elahi | wfpl.org

A view of the construction at the site of the planned Louisville Urban League Sports and Learning Complex.

The vacant warehouses are just across the street from another major project, the sports complex planned by the Louisville Urban League. Work on that site is now underway after last month’s groundbreaking, and the project has raised about half its funding.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is promoting investment in west Louisville as part of his economic development platform for the city. On Wednesday, he said the city is working on policies to prevent displacement amid that influx. However, his office has not yet released any concrete plans to achieve that.

Learn more about Fischer’s perspective on preventing displacement in this episode of the WFPL podcast Here Today:

Metro Council Members Call For More Protections In City-Owned Surplus Property Sales Sunday, Aug 18 2019 

Take three seemingly-disparate projects: the Louisville Urban League’s track and field complex, the Urban Government Center redevelopment and two historic buildings on Bardstown Road. All of them share a key detail: the land or buildings were owned by the city, but city officials say they aren’t needed for government use.

Declaring the properties “surplus” allows Louisville Metro to sell them cheap. That could mean pricing them below their assessed value, or selling them for a dollar. Often that low price is considered a subsidy for potential developments seen as worthwhile to the city and community.

But with Louisville’s budget shrinking, some Metro Council members are scrutinizing how the city sells these surplus properties. They say some deals have cost the city — either because they’re over-discounted, or because promised developments haven’t panned out.

Some have called for Louisville Forward and the Jefferson County Attorney’s office — which negotiate and write the deals — to write in more or different protections for the city. And one council member says the deal-making process should be overhauled.

Brent Ackerson (D-26) is critical of the expectation that Metro Council should simply rubber-stamp deals made by the mayor’s office.

“These are assets that belong to the city, these are assets that can affect our budgets,” he said. “The more we give away things, the question is, what are we getting in return for that? Because we’re not Daddy Warbucks, you know. The city runs on a tight budget.”

City services and staff were hit hard this fiscal year, as growing pension and employee healthcare costs forced officials to pass a budget that was more than $25 million below what the city needed to maintain last year’s levels.

Ackerson said council members should be involved in surplus sales earlier in the process. At present, Metro Council has the power to deny a deal by declining to approve the surplus status for a property. But it cannot as a body influence the sale price of a property, nor what is written in the contract. The only place the council can make changes is to the resolution authorizing a property to be designated as surplus.

And Ackerson said he isn’t satisfied with how little input the council has in the current deal-making process. He would like representatives from the Mayor’s office or Louisville Forward to formally discuss potential sales with council members before committing to the projects.

“They might need to come to us in advance and say, ‘Here’s what we’re talking about. Can you support this if we strike this deal? If not, what is it that you’re looking for?'” he said.

That way, he said council may have the ability to tweak terms of an agreement to make it acceptable, rather than having to vote to pass or kill it after the details are already decided.

Knowing about potential sales earlier in the process could help prevent costly mistakes, in Ackerson’s view. He offered the example of 814 Vine Street, which has been held up in committee because the city promised the land to two groups.

Now, if council approves the surplus designation for the property, which is part of the Urban Government center, Louisville Metro will pay a $150,000 settlement to The Marian Group. That developer planned to build shotgun homes on the vacant lot. At the same time, the Paristown Preservation Trust, which leased the land for parking in 2017, will pay $500,000 to The Marian Group and purchase the land from Metro for a dollar.

“I’m not accusing anyone of doing something wrong. But there’s the potential that wrong can be done,” Ackerson said. “In order to avoid the potential, we need mechanisms in place that allow the branch of this government being the Metro Council to question things.”

‘Evolving’ Economic Development Processes

Caitlin Bowling, a spokeswoman for economic development agency Louisville Forward, said her team works regularly with Metro Council members to apprise them of their work and to hear their feedback and concerns.

“We’re continuing to communicate with Metro Council about their expectations, because that’s something that has been evolving, as have our processes with developments and any surplus resolutions,” she said.

The biggest procedural change is some deals now contain provisions that would give Louisville Metro the first right of refusal to purchase a property if it isn’t developed as planned, she said. The Urban League deal, which the city is backing with a $10 million bond, includes this disclaimer:

If the Project is not developed within five (5) years from the date of title transfer of the Property from Metro to Developer, Developer agrees that the Property will revert back to Metro.

James Peden (R-23) said at a recent Metro Council meeting that development agreements for surplus property sales should include a standard line to give Louisville the right of first refusal for repurchasing a property at the price it sold it for under certain conditions.

“If whatever you’re doing doesn’t work out, if you try to flip it, whatever it is, we have the right to buy back for whatever it is you bought it from us — whether it’s that dollar, that symbolic dollar that we sometimes charge, or a few thousand dollars more,” he said.

The much-criticized sale of two Bardstown Road buildings included no such protection. Those properties were sold for a second time last month, for $1.12 million. The city sold them at a discount for $425,000 in late 2016 with the hope they would be turned into a Sterling Beer brewery.

Councilman Brandon Coan (D-8), who represents the district where the historic properties are located, said council members learned from that experience. He said they want the city to have the opportunity to repurchase properties for the original price so that “someone else doesn’t promise us something, fail to deliver and they get to keep the property.”

This Bardstown Road project didn’t include a development agreement; Louisville Forward only writes these agreements for sales in which the city is investing in the project, such as the Louisville Urban League’s planned track and field complex in the Russell neighborhood. A development agreement is a type of contract that dictates the terms of certain city property sales, and includes details including how the property would be developed and what might happen if that fails.

Bowling, with Louisville Forward, could not say whether right of refusal clauses would become standard in surplus sales. She said each deal is different.