Troubleshooters: Two elected offices, same person

Troubleshooters: Two elected offices, same person
Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 6:05 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 21, 2023 at 6:14 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Newly elected Kentucky State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong gave up her Louisville Metro Council seat before being sworn into the legislature. That’s because Kentucky law bars politicians from holding multiple offices.

St. Matthews Mayor Rick Tonini is a longtime fixture in the community. He’s been involved with the city and fire department for decades and it doesn’t break any laws. Tonini runs for his city position, but what may be less well understood, is he also runs for his position on the fire district, separate from the City of Saint Matthews.

Someone reached out to WAVE News Troubleshooters asking how Tonini can hold both offices, so we asked him about it.

On a Monday near the end of last year, two separate government bodies - the St. Matthews City Council and the St. Matthews Fire Protection District - discussed how they would use taxpayer money just hours apart. Leading both meetings was a familiar face.

“I wear a lot of hats,” said Tonini, the mayor and fire board chair.

Tonini runs for seats on both government bodies and said he loves the work.

“It’s not for money, I make $25 a month for trustee as the fire district and $7,200 a year doing this job (as mayor),” Tonini said.

But WAVE wanted to know how Tonini manages both. State law seems to frown on dual office holders. There’s a whole law defining incompatible offices.

“The laws are meant to prevent the same people from being able to exercise the powers enjoyed by multiple offices because they could create a conflict of interest,” said University of Kentucky Professor Stephen Voss.

Voss said the issue here has its roots in Kentucky’s age. Lawmakers more than a century ago wanted government responsibilities and power slim by design. Special districts could be created to solve specific problems. Trash collection. Fire protection. But Voss said they can run into problems of their own.

“Special districts don’t really fit comfortably into the divisions, the separation of powers that most of these limitations, most of the protections try to address,” said Voss.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office reviews these legal issues when asked.

In 2018, it found a Bullitt County Fiscal Court member who was also on the Mt. Washington Fire Protection District Board shouldn’t be in both roles. The Attorney General’s office has never been asked to review Tonini’s dual roles.

“I talk to both the City of St. Matthews and the fire district attorney all the time, I’ve never had to ask a question about influence or any improper situation,” said Tonini.

He said conflicts between the two boards don’t happen.

“We don’t have issues like that,” said Tonini.

But WAVE found some concerns after digging through city and fire district records. For example, installing speed bumps on a portion of Ridgeway Avenue.

“When I was working in the mornings, it was sometimes hard to get out of my driveway,” said neighbor Lisa Schrenger.

Neighbors asked the city to install the speed bumps in 2017 after dealing with traffic headaches for years.

“Particularly in the mornings during the school year, Trinity High School was pretty crazy,” said Schrenger.

But records show the city and fire district disagreed.

Former Fire Chief Bill Seng asked the St. Matthews City Council to vote them down. He warned they would slow response times and damage the fire trucks. The City Council disagreed and approved them. The day after, Seng asked the fire board to sue the city.

“Seng thought it was a bad idea,” said Tonini.

Their attorney estimated it would cost $5,000. The trustees voted it down. Tonini didn’t vote.

“It wasn’t something I thought was a legitimate issue,” said Tonini.

The roles were reversed slightly a year earlier. That was when the fire district decided to start an ambulance service. This time the fire district asked the city to support its efforts and sign a contract, if needed. The fire chief told the council he was only asking St. Matthews for possible financial support.

“I see it in here, like I say neither as Mayor or Board of Fire Trustees, I don’t know if that was put in there to protect their butts, but I don’t remember any conversation, would request money or assistance from the City of St Matthews,” said Tonini.

WAVE also found a letter of recommendation sent from the St. Matthews police chief supporting the ambulance service in the state file. It was written on city letterhead identifying Tonini as mayor addressed to Tonini as fire district chairman. Tonini said he did not tell the chief to write the letter.

“It was nothing but best intentions to provide the best possible service,” said Tonini.

Tonini didn’t vote for the ambulance service resolution either.

“I didn’t vote for either the city or the trustees one way or the others,” said Tonini.

That’s because the city doesn’t give Tonini a vote as mayor. He can only break ties. Tonini said he also doesn’t vote on the fire board. That is his personal choice. There’s nothing in state law or the fire district’s bylaws that prevents him from voting.

“Whether I’m sitting here or sitting over there I’m wearing whatever hat that is when I’m there. I don’t wear a hat thinking how I’m going to benefit the City or benefit the Fire District,” said Tonini.

Tonini won reelection as Mayor with more than 5,400 votes in 2018. He won reelection to the Fire District last year with seven votes.

“You can involve yourself if the voters will let you involve yourself,” said Voss.

“If I had to make a decision, I would, but I don’t, I think they both benefit from me being there,” said Tonini.

Tonini’s positions are not being investigated, but if a court found Tonini couldn’t hold both offices, he would have to give up his mayor’s seat since the fire district election was his most recent win.