The first two lessons I learned as a state representative were: I do not have a monopoly on brains, and when one of us does something in conflict with our Code of Ethics, we all look bad in the public eye. As a legislator, I can be perceived as a voice for many, a conduit for deliberative democracy and someone elected by individuals who will make certain I do my job well. I have never perceived my position as one of power but one that demanded leadership skills to be a “change-agent.”
One of our chief responsibilities as legislators is to continuously look for ways to carry out government services more fairly and efficiently. We provide a critical check and balance as we make sure that the people’s work is being done and their tax dollars are being put to their best use.
With that in mind, one area of government that I think needs a more in-depth review is our 15 Area Development Districts (ADDs). These organizations play a powerful role in our communities by delivering critical services our citizens need. For example, by working hand in hand with the Workforce Investment Board, your local area development district has the ability to build thriving communities that entice industry, because it guides job-training dollars that can rebuild your economy. Think of the gift families are given when adult children remain close to home because there is a job nearby that matches their skillset.
Area Development Districts also preserve the dignity, self-respect and independence of Kentucky’s elders and individuals with disabilities with around $58 million of your tax dollars that come from the state and federal government. With ADD leadership, programs and services are provided for the most vulnerable and fragile population in our country, our seniors. ADDs coordinate home delivered meals for the elderly so participants can remain healthy and independent and are not haunted by hunger and food insecurity. Through their home-visitation programs, ADDs allow seniors to avoid the need for nursing home care.
Unfortunately, the “black-eye” principle I mentioned applies to ADDs as well, and when one does wrong, they all suffer. In 2014, former Auditor Adam Edelen released an alarming audit of the Bluegrass Area Development District that continues to cause pain across the entire state. The General Assembly has not met the challenge to fix the underlying issue, but we have an opportunity this legislative session to rectify that. That is the very reason I will be sponsoring a transparency bill that will provide relief for the ADDs that do their work proudly and want citizens to know that they value every contribution they receive from hard-earned tax dollars.
My goal is simple: I want the ADDs to be as open and ethical as we expect all of government to be. I want the public to know the ADDs are putting their interests first and can easily prove it. We need a brighter spotlight, so we can praise what they are doing well and immediately begin fixing whatever problems there may be. I see my legislation as the map that can lead us there. It has the potential to be the biggest “change-agent” law the General Assembly can pass this year.
Susan Westrom represents House District 79.