Saturday, October 26, 2002

Dueling politicians

From pistols to paper cuts

Political foes in Kentucky used to resolve their differences with duels.

This had the downside of occasional death, but at least paperwork was minimal. Those were the days.

Now the honorable gentlemen of our state attack each other with document-gathering. Instead of pistols, they fire off huge open-records requests, which they dump on local governments every election year.

The goal: To catch incumbents screwing up.

The result: press releases about wasteful spending, followed by explanations and denials from those in office. Attentive voters get a measure of enlightenment about how government works. Happily, no blood is shed, unless you count all the paper cuts sustained by civil servants.

For 20 years, the city of Covington kept all its records requests in one small folder.

"Now we need an entire file drawer," legal secretary Patty Dickinson says.

Trickle to deluge

This year, the trickle began in February and became a deluge by September. Covington and Kenton County have been hardest hit, due to an eight-way contest for city commission in the former and a close judge-executive race in the latter.

Candidates or their cronies have asked for everything from the attendance records of a particular secretary to the current mileage on every county SUV.

In Covington, commission candidate Howard Hodge submitted 17 separate requests to review hundreds of pages of documents. He announced one revelation Thursday night: Over five years, Commissioner Jerry Bamberger racked up $27,000 in travel without submitting receipts.

Mr. Bamberger counters that he's the lone Kentuckian on the board of the National League of Cities. He helped Covington get a $50,000 grant after learning about it at one conference. And he sometimes puts staff members' expenses on his city credit card, because he has one and they don't.

Avalanche of requests

In Kenton, 12 records requests have come from Democratic operatives Mark Guilfoyle, Joe Meyer and Nathan Smith, who want to see Patrick Hughes beat incumbent Dick Murgatroyd in the judge-executive's race.

Just this week, Mr. Guilfoyle asked for all the cell-phone bills of Mr. Murgatroyd and his top assistant, as well as long-distance records for all county phones that show calls to five particular numbers.

The Hughes camp wants to prove Mr. Murgatroyd has spent county resources on his re-election campaign. Mr. Murgatroyd's people deny it.

The avalanche of requests bothers Greg Shumate, Kenton County Republican chairman, who says facts get twisted and public money wasted on lengthy searches.

From an employee's perspective, "You can't really do your job when you're spending all your time looking through old records because of open-records requests," Mr. Shumate says.

Yeah, well, get used to it. Keeping government open is part of government's job, even if such requests come solely from political opponents.

Paper cuts aside, these duels are good for us.

E-mail or call (859)578-5584.

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