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EDITORIAL: Cleaning up ADD mess not enough; Bluegrass needs credible planning [Lexington Herald-Leader :: ]
[March 09, 2014]

EDITORIAL: Cleaning up ADD mess not enough; Bluegrass needs credible planning [Lexington Herald-Leader :: ]

(Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 09--Of all the toxic mixes known to man few are as sure to produce scandal as a large pool of public money under the control of too few people.

Thus the scorching report last week by state Auditor Adam Edelen on the activities of the Blue Grass Area Development District, which is supposed to assist and coordinate economic growth in 17 Central Kentucky counties.

The audit was damning, describing misspent federal money, hidden illegal activity and rampant spending by a "rogue" administration with little oversight.

State and federal law-enforcement agencies must energetically pursue the individuals involved. People who misuse tax dollars and divert them from the public good should feel the full force of the law.

This is particularly true because a 1997 state auditor's report, near the end of Jas Sekhon's 34-year rule as executive director, uncovered many of the same issues.

This wasn't a one-off, random mistake. It was a pattern that persisted during the eight-year reign of Sekhon's protege and successor, Lenny Stoltz II, who was forced to resign in June.

Prosecuting the wrongdoers will only address the past.

If the Blue Grass ADD is to regain legitimacy, if it is to even survive, the judge-executives and mayors who make up and appoint its board of directors must dismantle the existing failed structure and build one that distributes power and assures both accountability and openness.

It is easy to get lost -- no doubt that was the point -- in the tangle of interlocking entities, magical accounting and overlapping expenses at the ADD. But in the end virtually no one but Stoltz appeared to have any authority over, or understanding of, how it managed about $24.5 million of mostly public money annually.

As evidence of his amazing control, Stoltz asked for a $20,000 lump-sum payment for 20 years of undocumented, non-specified expenses -- and he got it.

Edelen believes the board is reasserting itself, with Stoltz gone and the audit in hand.

The agency has 60 days to respond, explaining how it is addressing the issues uncovered in the audit.

Some suggestions: The 75-member board and 17-member executive committee are too large. A huge, cumbersome board enables a situation in which staff governs the governing body rather than the reverse.

As Edelen noted in an interview, if Stoltz didn't get the answer he wanted from one director or committee, he simply went to another, or ignored them altogether.

Likewise the executive committee is much too large to effectively keep a close eye on day-to-day operations.

Whistleblowers must be able to communicate directly to the board without fear of retaliation, with a process outside the chain of command for investigating those reports.

The board must also assure the ADD has strong, clear policies, that are enforced, on travel expenses, conflicts of interest and open records, and that staff is trained in them regularly.

While the board is charged with responding to the audit, state and federal agencies that made grants to the ADD must also explain how they overlooked or ignored such extreme mismanagement.

A large unanswered question is how the agency could have been audited annually, as federal guidelines require, while this abuse persisted.

Finally, the agency must refocus on its self-defined mission, "to enhance the economy of communities in its area through planning to maximize resources, projects to promote development and programs to improve the quality of life for the citizens." Central Kentucky has lots of local governments but lots of challenges -- economic growth, environmental protection, transportation, you name it -- that demand regional planning and cooperation.

The Bluegrass needs a regional organization that can be trusted to address these issues.

___ (c)2014 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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