Three resolutions introduced at Tuesday night's Kenton County Fiscal Court meeting stirred a strong debate and allegations that the campaign trail had run through the County Building.
Commissioner Kris Knochelmann introduced two resolutions related to the Kenton County Airport Board which oversees the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky International Airport, one offering support to airport CEO Candace McGraw and another tightening control of the board's expenditures and the role of the county judge-executive in those expenses.
A third called for the exploration of adding fifty new treatment beds in the county for heroin addicts.
Knochelmann is challenging incumbent Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus in the May 20 Republican primary.
"I thought we agreed we wouldn't do any political issues in the court. That's part of your campaign," said Commissioner Jon Draud to Knochelmann. "I'm not going to vote on anything like that. It's not in our power. That's not a proper motion for this board to consider."
"You can write that in your campaign, do whatever you want to, but I don't think fiscal court should be part of this campaign," Draud continued.
The management at the airport is emerging as a centerpiece of the Judge-Executive race. An investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer last fall revealed questionable spending practices including high travel costs for board members and meals and drinks after meetings.
The Kenton County Judge-Executive appoints all seven voting members of the airport board and serves on the board in an ex-officio member without a vote.
One of Knochelmann's resolutions laid out six points related to the airport board's governance: 1) The Airport Board members shall follow the Kenton County travel policy meal reimbursement schedule and allow up to 150% of the standard reimbursement levels set; 2) Reasonable meals may be provided before during or after board meetings and training functions, as decided by the Chairman; 3) No alcohol shall be provided by the Kenton County Airport Board for any meetings or functions; Kenton County Airport Board member travel shall be limited to the following: a) Up to 4 members are permitted to attend any ACI conference in the continental US; b) Up to 2 ACI conferences per year may be attended by members of the board; c) One board member is permitted to attend any international conference each d) Priority for attendance at U.S. conferences shall be given to committee chairpersons.
Knochelmann cited House Bill 1, adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly last year and championed by State Auditor Adam Edelen, which gives local governments more oversight of special taxing districts as justification for the resolution.
"And you still say you're not using this meeting for political purposes? That's a big joke, Kris," Draud said.
"Very few people are willing to step up to the plate to say enough is enough," Knochelmann responded.
Edelen's office has launched a special examination the airport board's spending practices. Last week, its chairman, vice chairman, and a third member resigned and were replaced on the same day by Arlinghaus.
"If we're going to start reviewing policies and procedures at the airport or other agencies that fall under the jurisdiction of House Bill 1, I think it would make some sense that perhaps we have a roundtable discussion with the four of us at some near future date to talk about how we handle these issues," Arlinghaus said.
"What are we going to do with the other ones? Let them have a free pass? We're walking into an area that none of us have been before. I would think it may be more appropriate that we have some more discussion. I think it's not a good idea," Arlinghaus said.
Knochelmann said he reached out to past board members who support his suggestions.
Commissioner Beth Sewell said that the county should be paying for any travel taken by Arlinghaus, not the airport board. She said that would be more transparent. "I particularly like that part of it," she said in seconding the motion to bring the resolution to a vote.
The result was a two to two tie with Draud and Arlinghaus opposing. "This is not our issue. It's up to the airport board to decide their travel policies," Draud said.
Confidence in Airport CEO
Another of Knochelmann's resolutions asked for the fiscal court to pass a resolution as a show of confidence in Candace McGraw's work as CEO at the airport.
Prior to last week's resignations, some members of the airport board had worked behind closed doors to facilitate McGraw's ouster.
"What do you know about her? Do you know anything about her performance?," Draud asked Knochelmann. "I can't vote on her performance."
Knochelmann said through a troubled economy and a reduction in flights at the airport, McGraw managed to receive multiple positive reviews. "It has been very clear that she has done an excellent job since she has taken over the airport," Knochelmann said.
Sewell offered a second to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote. "I think she has done a good job. I don't have any beef with her," Sewell said. "I feel this person has had a bad rap over the past several months and probably could stand some support from those of us who appreciate what she does."
"As another female exec in this community, I'm glad she's stood her ground and did a bang-up job," Sewell said.
Arlinghaus said the fiscal court should not adopt a resolution on this matter "based on reports in the news".
"I don't know any members of the commission here who sat in on any of the board meetings or have been a part of any discussions," Arlignhaus said. "I think it very much appears to be political grandstanding and it's unfortunate you chose to go this route."
"It's not grandstanding," Knochelmann said. "This sends a message that can be very calming to multiple issues out there."
Arlinghaus argued that the new chair and vice chair of the board would have discussions with the CEO. He said he thinks the fiscal court should its support to the new chair and vice chair.
When Arlinghaus announced the new appointments last Friday, he identified William T. (Bill) Robinson as chair and Kathy Collins as vice chair.
The roll call vote on this resolution also ended with a two to two tie. Draud, who voted no, said, "This is no reflection on Candace because I don't know her. I know nothing about her performance at all."
Arlinghaus also voted no. "Not because I don't have an issue on Candace one way or the other. I think it's an issue for the airport board to made. It's the board's decision," he said.
Third resolution targets treatment beds
Knochelmann also brought to the floor a resolution that would support the issuance of a request for proposals from parties that would provide fifty new beds in the county for the purpose of treating heroin addicts.
Arlinghaus and Draud argued that the move could interfere with regional efforts like the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact and Response Team being managed by the Northern Kentucky Area Development District (NKADD) across the region.
"We're being premature here to take action now before the final decision has gone through the entire region as well as the state legislature," Draud said. "I think we're all committed to helping with the heroin problem but this action is not necessary right now. It's a matter of timing."
Draud said that Knochelmann agreed previously that the issue was a regional one.
"This might be a short-term solution while we wait for our long-term solution," Knochelmann said. "I want to see us take some action and not just talk about it."
"This gets the ball rolling so it looks like Kenton County is leading on this and not just talking about it," she said. "We have an opportunity here to do something good."
"I think it's admirable we're looking at ways to assist and try to provide additional beds and so forth," Arlinghaus said, "but we did have a meeting. We met with (NKADD) and county judges and representatives and Attorney General (Jack) Conway. (NKADD) is working on this issue in the form of management and to corral the issue and to come up with a plan to move forward with this."
"It's being done in an eight-county regional area as opposed to us operating individually."
"The beauty of it is, we're not doing anything (NKADD) is working on," Knochelmann said. "Some counties may not even have a problem yet or may not have the money. Oftentimes we can get a lot of things done working together in Northern Kentucky but sometimes it takes a lot of time. We've got the jail full. Grateful Life down the road with a lot of residents from all over Kentucky and the percentage from Kenton County was small. If no one else wants to come to the table we may be the only ones with beds for our residents."
Draud said again that the resolution appeared to be politically motivated. "We agreed several months ago that the Arlinghaus-Knochelmann county judge race would not be operating during these fiscal court meetings," he said. "You've lived up to that and Steve as, too, and we should continue to do that."
"When I brought this up last time, my feeling was, regardless of what happens in the next year or so, I don't care what people might call it, it's action and serving the public and getting information," Knochelmann said. "I never agreed to anything you say I've agreed to."
The treatment bed resolution followed the fate of the previous two, ending in a two to two ties with Arlinghaus and Draud opposed, and Knochelmann and Sewell supporting.
"Wasn't that the objective, Kris? To get the judge to vote no?," Draud asked.
"No, I was praying for the opposite," Knochelmann said.
Whether the resolutions were politically motivated, they were immediately made part of the judge-executive race.
Knochelmann's campaign issued a news release Wednesday morning blasting a "lack of leadership" by Arlinghaus and Draud.
“I am very disappointed that they are playing games with the Fiscal Court,” Knochelmann said in a news release. “They need to lead, follow, or get out of the way, right now they are in the way, and preventing progress on issues we all agree upon.”
“Their votes (Tuesday night) show they either care more about trying to smear me than improving our community, or they are so out of touch that they can’t work with others. I honestly have no idea what their motivation could be. I just hope they can put their games aside so that we can make Kenton County a better place,” Knochelmann said in the release.
"I think it's just unfortunate that it turned into a political stage for himself such as it did," Arlinghaus said Wednesday. "To use the fiscal court meetings for a political stunt, I think it just shows poor leadership."
Arlinghaus took umbrage with Knochelmann's characterization of the judge-executive's position on the heroin epidemic facing the region. Arlinghaus said he lost a niece to heroin three years ago and has another niece in rehab. "To try to insinuate I'm opposed to support for this is ludicrous," Arlinghaus said.
He said the county and the regional group are looking at ways to manage the epidemic in a more aggressive and cost efficient manner and that Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl is exploring options out there, too, where many inmates are behind bars on drug-related charges.
"With all the work everybody else is doing on this, for him to pull off a stunt for political reasons, I call it a desperation move for public attention," Arlingaus said.
*In an earlier version of this story, RCN incorrectly referenced an earlier report by the Cincinnati Enquirer regarding questionable spending by airport board members on "taxpayer-funded alcohol." This reference was incorrect and no taxpayer dollars were spent on alcoholic beverages. Our editor regrets the error.
Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News