Metro Council President David James | Photo by Joe Sonka

A state House committee passed a bill on Wednesday that would allow Louisville Metro Council to retain its own attorney to represent the legislative body instead of the Jefferson County Attorney’s office — after hearing supportive testimony from Council President David James and opposing testimony from Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell.

Rep. Jerry Miller — formerly a Republican member of Metro Council before being elected to the state House — sponsored House Bill 319, telling Insider Louisville before the vote Wednesday that it was needed in order to avoid the conflicts of interest that sometimes arise due to the county attorney’s office representing both the office of the mayor and Metro Council.

James told Insider that the bill was necessary because of numerous situations in recent years where this conflict emerged and council members were not sure if officials in the county attorney’s were working for them or Mayor Greg Fischer’s office.

While Metro Council currently has the power under state law to retain attorneys for legal advice, HB 319 would give the legislative bodies of consolidated governments the authority to retain attorneys for their own legal representation, whether they be hired full time or contracted.

James asserted there have been times when council members questioned the “level of candor” of assistant county attorneys they’ve worked with, and “because of this split allegiance type of situation, it makes it hard for the council to feel like they are truly getting good legal advice and not political-slash-legal advice.”

The council president noted multiple incidences where conflicts related to confidentiality or representation have come up, including issues involving the LMPD Explorer abuse scandal, the council’s subpoena power, the investigation of former Councilman Dan Johnson and, most recently, proposed legislation to force the mayor’s office to disclose prospective business clients entertained at the Kentucky Derby.

Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell

As an example, James said that Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11 — who also testified for HB 319 on Wednesday — had an amendment to that proposed Derby spending ordinance crafted for him by the county attorney’s office, only to have a representative of that same office question the legality of his amendment when it was proposed at a council meeting.

“They were representing the mayor’s office, too, which was pushing back against the ordinance, and it just turned into a big mess,” said James.

However, House Bill 319 is strongly opposed by Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, who also testified against the bill in the House Local Government Committee on Wednesday before it was passed.

O’Connell told the committee that the legislation is unnecessary and could lead to the creation of a separate and costly legal department for the city, while potentially creating a domino effect in which other local governments follow suit.

Calling HB 319 an “unfunded mandate that strips Jefferson County of its independent and single legal representative,” O’Connell said the bill could lead to each party’s caucus creating their own legal departments with attorneys and staff that could be “a half million dollar exercise, or more,” all while Metro Government deals with a current budget that could lead to massive cuts or new taxes next year.

O’Connell also criticized the bill advancing despite Metro Council passing no resolutions in support of such a move by the General Assembly, claiming that he has spoken to leadership of both parties on Metro Council who had not been made aware of the bill.

House Bill 319 passed the committee by a 10-3 vote, with the three dissenting votes coming from Democratic legislators, including Rep Jeff Donohue of Louisville. Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, was the lone Democratic vote in support of HB 319, arguing that it is important for a city council to be a co-equal branch of government.

Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins of Shively is the lone co-sponsor of the bill, which can now be taken up in the full House.

Though James told Insider Wednesday morning that the mayor’s office indicated to him that they are not opposed to the bill, Mayor Fischer’s spokeswoman Jean Porter issued a statement Wednesday evening suggesting that is not the case.

“This is a local issue that really shouldn’t require state legislation,” stated Porter in an email. “We have concerns about how it would be funded, especially given the difficult budgets ahead. And we’d urge the Council and county attorney to talk through the concerns on either side.”

This story has been updated with O’Connell’s testimony and the statement from Fischer’s office.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]