Is a lobbyist in city's, county's future?

-A A +A

Mayor, county judge support the idea

By Stephen Lega

When Tom Lund visited the Marion County Fiscal Court during its Jan. 21 meeting, he had one request - that the county consider hiring a lobbyist in Frankfort.

Specifically, Lund was asking if the county would split with the City of Lebanon the cost of hiring Karen Thomas-Lentz to advocate on their behalf at a cost of $20,000 a year. Lund is the executive director of the Marion County Economic Development Office and manages the Marion County Industrial Foundation.

"We don't have the time to be up there all the time, and we really need to be up there all year," Lund told the court.

The magistrates expressed a number of reservations, but eventually voted unanimously to approve allowing Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly to use some of the general welfare fund under his discretion to pay $2,500 to Thomas-Lentz for the first quarter of 2010.

The magistrates' decision was conditional, however. The fiscal court voted to allow county money to be spent only if the city council approves paying the other half of the bill.

The city council will have the opportunity to make its decision at its next meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 8.

Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw supports hiring a lobbyist as well.

"More and more, you have to have more and more contacts," he said.

He added that special interest groups are fighting for fewer and fewer state dollars, and having a lobbyist could give the city and the county another way to influence the policy makers in the Capitol.

Crenshaw said it became known that former State Sen. Dan Kelly would likely be stepping down from his seat to accept an appointment as a circuit judge, which is exactly what happened. Kelly had risen through the ranks to become the Senate Majority Leader, which meant he had been second only to Senate President David Williams among the leadership in that house of the General Assembly.

Although Marion County native Jimmy Higdon was elected to fill Kelly's seat, Higdon does not have the same rank within the Senate that Kelly did.

Likewise, Higdon had to resign as a state representative to join the state senate. Yesterday, a special election was held to fill Higdon's vacant 24th District house seat.

Even if Marion Countian Terry Mills won that election (visit www.lebanonenterprise.com for results), local leaders are concerned that Lebanon and Marion County could benefit in the competition for state funds by having another voice in Frankfort on a day-to-day basis.

And that competition is there, according to Higdon. As an example, he has said publicly that there may be 100 road projects seeking funding, but only about 10 of them are likely to be approved during the 2010 legislative session.

Mattingly said the discussions about hiring a lobbyist grew from himself, Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw, and members of the Marion County Economic Development Board and the Marion County Industrial Foundation.

"Now that things are in a little shorter supply, you got to have somebody there," Mattingly said.

In addition to state highway projects, including the repaving of Danville and Bradfordsville highways, (KY 68 and KY 49, respectively), the city and the county see real benefits are possible from the ongoing renovation of the Marion County Area Technology Center, Mattingly said.

"We got to open some doors in Frankfort to allow us to do some innovative pilot programs," he said.

In addition to the tech center and highway projects, Lund identified other projects in a letter dated May 13, 2009, to Freddie Higdon, the president of the industrial foundation. That letter reads that the city and county agreed that the city could use an additional water source, that the city could use a northwest sewer lift station and that improvements are needed to the communications system, specifically enhanced 911.

When the possibility of hiring a lobbyist was raised during the Jan. 21 fiscal court meeting, several magistrates went on record with their concerns.

Magistrate Jackie Wicker asked Lund if the industrial foundation would be willing to pay part of the cost to hire Thomas-Lentz. Lund replied that the foundation cannot hire a lobbyist because it is a 501(c)3 organization.

Other economic development organizations have hired lobbyists in the recent past, however.

In 2006, the LaRue County Industrial Foundation had lobbyists in Frankfort, as did the Scottsville Allen County Industrial Authority in 2009, according to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission register of legislative agents (lobbyists) and their employers.

Lund also said that Marion County benefited from an added presence in Frankfort through political action committees. Those PACs helped secure money for road projects in the county, the St. Joe Community Center, the farmer's market pavilion and the judicial center, which is under construction, according to Lund.

Magistrate John Arthur Elder III disputed that, arguing that former county judge, the late Dave Hourigan, who had contacts and connections in Frankfort, and former Sen. Kelly influenced those projects.

Mattingly said that other local governments have had lobbyists to represent them in Frankfort.

Magistrate Steve Masterson stated reservations about the presence of any lobbyists.

"I wish they would just take all the lobbyists and run them out of Frankfort and Washington, and I think we'd all be better off," he said.

But Masterson added that if everybody had one, the county needed one, too.

According to the ethics commission, the cities of Covington, Frankfort, Franklin, Georgetown, Grand Rivers and Hodgenville were registered as having hired or actively employing lobbyists. Only Grand Rapids is listed as an active employer.

Among counties, Boone County, Christian County, Henderson County and LaRue County were listed as employers. Henderson and LaRue counties are listed as active employers. Lexington-Fayette County and the Louisville and Jefferson County Metro Government are also identified as active employers.

Another organization, Team Taylor County, is also listed as an active employer.

Magistrate Roger "Cotton" Smothers questioned whether hiring a lobbyist was needed. The county is represented by a state senator (and will be represented by the winner of yesterday's special election) already, he pointed out.

"If they're up there working for us, why should we send another person - a lobbyist - up there to try to work on our part?" Smothers said. "They [the elected officials] are there trying to work for us. Really that's our job and that's their job."

Eventually, the magistrates approved the expenditure from the judge's general welfare fund. Mattingly said he wouldn't recommend spending the money if he didn't think it would be good for the county.

The city council could make a decision next week, but both the judge and mayor said they would not support continuing to hire a lobbyist if it doesn't seem to be helping.

"If there aren't any results, we'll have to re-evaluate what we are doing," Crenshaw said.

Karen Thomas-Lentz

The Marion County Fiscal Court has given its preliminary approval to hiring a lobbyist in Frankfort if the Lebanon City Council agrees to split the bill to hire her. The proposal presented at the Jan. 21 fiscal court meeting calls for Thomas-Lentz to receive $5,000 per quarter or up to $20,000 ($10,000 from each body).

Thomas-Lentz is the daughter of the late Sam B. Thomas, who also served as a state representative in Frankfort.

According to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, Thomas-Lentz has been a registered legislative agent (lobbyist) for 43 employers over the years. At this time, she is listed as an active agent for AT&T, Bluegrass Orthopedics, the Brain Injury Association of Kentucky, EPIC Pharmacies, Inc., the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentucky, Fresenius Medical Care North America, Hewlett-Packard Company, Johnson & Johnson, KY-811, the Kentucky Concrete Pavement Association, the Kentucky Liquor Retailers Coalition, the Kentucky Occupational Therapy Association, the Society of Dispensing Opticians of Kentucky and Wireless Generation.