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Abramson's lordly ways

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King Louis XIV, who reigned over France for 72 years, supposedly said, "L'├ętat, c'est moi," or "I am the state." Mayor Jerry Abramson, the Democrat who has lorded over Louisville seemingly as long, apparently thinks he is the city when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. Examples abound, but a few suffice to reveal Abramson's attitude about his power over public funds.

In May 2003, Abramson, entirely on his own, signed an agreement giving the city's $750,000 annual rent from Slugger Field to the Downtown Development Corp. Republican councilman Hal Heiner is not happy about that. "There's been about $4 million diverted from the city's general fund through an agreement signed by the Mayor without council approval," he said. But the deferential Democrats who dominate the council dare not cross their party's vindictive local boss by undoing the deal.

The DDC is a private entity that says it is "responsible for planning for the long-term economic health and vitality of downtown, providing a forum for establishing downtown development priorities among private and public entities, and taking strategic catalytic actions to move these priorities forward." It may be the most worthwhile organization this side of the Salvation Army, but, if so, why did Abramson act alone instead of making that case to the council?

What does the DDC do with the city's dollars? Some of the money pays salaries and expenses for a high-rise office. Some council members suspect that the DDC is sitting on about $1.5 million and have filed an open records request to find out more financial facts. One thing the DDC does with citizens' money is lead cheers for other Abramson initiatives like the controversial Center City development.

The council begrudgingly approved a $12 million land purchase for that project, but somehow the shibboleth got started that it had no right to vote on the overall development agreement. That document, which Abramson signed without bothering to put the proposal up for bid, obligates Louisville to pay millions in incentives, subsidies and sweetheart deals to Baltimore-based Cordish Companies.

Anyone who has ever watched Metro TV has seen the council approving expenditures of relatively tiny sums. If legislators must vote on those, how can Abramson commit Louisville to spending exponentially more by the stroke of his pen? He claims a Kentucky statute empowering Louisville's mayor to "execute written contracts or obligations" means he can enter into agreements on his own. Under this aggressive interpretation, he can assign ballpark rents, promise tax money to private developers or, in theory, sell City Hall or the courthouse.

But "execute" in this context more likely means a mere ministerial act. Abramson can sign agreements the council authorizes or approves. The statutes reserve the power of appropriating money to the council, and the verb "appropriate" means "to set apart, authorize or legislate for some specific purpose or use." If the council does reclaim its rightful role, expect someone else to mount another costly legal challenge to Abramson's self-proclaimed power over the city purse.

Abramson still stonewalls council Republican Ken Fleming's and Democrat Tina Ward-Pugh's ordinance to determine the true costs of city services. There is simply no good reason for his stubborn resistance to this sound bipartisan idea. Ironically, union zealots who previously opposed it as a pathway to privatization now find themselves on the receiving end of Abramson's bloody budget-cutting.

No wonder the Fraternal Order of Police and council Republicans are suspicious when Abramson claims a $20 million revenue shortfall. Bloggers understandably beg for openness about Metro finances. A world-class city, as Abramson boasts ours is, would already have every check, expenditure, invoice and obligation on the Internet for easy public access and greater government accountability.

Abramson, mayor for 18 years already, can seek four more in 2010. Voters recently mesmerized by the change mantra chanted at Republicans George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell should consider its application to a Democrat considerably closer to home. Until then, "La ville, c'est Jerry."

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney who writes a political column on alternate Tuesdays in Forum. He is completing a biography of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. His views are his own, not those of the law firm in which he practices.