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INEPT Fiscal court payment vote amid probe indefensible

What in the world is going on with the McCracken Fiscal Court?

Over the weekend Commissioner Ronnie Freeman filed a complaint with the sheriff's office over a county payment to former county Emergency Services Director Paul Carter. Freeman alleged that a $31,758.73 check issued to Carter for accrued compensatory time was unauthorized, because the check was issued and cashed prior to documentation for the comp time being submitted to the fiscal court for review and approval.

Sheriff Jon Hayden said he found the matter concerning, and forwarded the complaint to the Kentucky Attorney General to investigate.

That is an eye-opener, to be sure. But more astonishing to us is the fact that the fiscal court voted unanimously to make this payment - subject to conditions - despite a heretofore undisclosed state police investigation into an allegation of an attempt to blackmail Commissioner Jerry Beyer into supporting the payment.

We don't see how it could possibly be appropriate for the fiscal court to consider and approve any payment to Carter before that allegation is resolved, one way or another. And we don't see how Commissioner Beyer could vote on it at all. Clearly, he should have recused himself from voting.

But the existence of the investigation was not disclosed to the public or otherwise discussed when the fiscal court voted on the matter earlier this month.

Only when the payment appeared to run afoul of the pre-set conditions did Freeman step forward. And only then did Freeman bring to the public's attention the matter of the ongoing state police probe. He at least deserves credit for that. We suppose late is better than never regarding the public's right to know.

The timing of the payment does appear to be a problem. The ordinance authorizing it required a couple of steps before the payment could be made. One was that County Attorney Mike Murphy determine that the payment would not run afoul of a state law that caps the amount of comp time certain classifications of public workers can accumulate. According to Judge-Executive Van Newberry, Murphy determined the payment could be legally made.

However, the other condition, that the county commissioners be allowed to review documentation for the comp time, appears to have been violated. The check was issued to Carter by the county treasurer Dec. 18 and cashed on Dec. 19. But the email with the documentation of the expense did not go out to commissioners until Dec. 20, according to Freeman. Freeman further contends that despite the language of the ordinance, the expenses legally have to be accepted and approved in a formal meeting of the fiscal court before a payment can properly be made.

Whether this series of events rises to the level of a crime is something that remains to be seen. But at the very least, it is just the latest entry on a growing list of serious procedural miscues by the county government.

Judge-Executive Newberry is himself facing felony prosecution over allegations that he changed county zoning maps without going through legally required public proceedings. And then there was the embarrassing, and costly error last summer, when the county issued a permit to build storage units next to a cemetery, in violation of the county's own zoning laws. The county had to buy the units for more than $50,000 and demolish them to right that wrong.

Now comes the check to Carter. It's a disturbing pattern of ineptitude, if not worse. But at the risk of being repetitious, it's astounding to us that the fiscal court would even vote on this payment until the question of whether there was criminal coercion involved is settled. That's grossly irresponsible. The taxpayers expect and deserve better.

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