Following a meeting during which state Rep. Bud Cook talked to local elected officials about transparency in how Local Share Account funding is doled out, he got into a heated discussion with a Charleroi councilman.
“You know … the DCED (state Department of Community and Economic Development) audits this stuff every year,” Mark Alterici told Cook.
Cook made news recently, pressing for increased oversight about how LSA money – which comes from casinos – is given out in the counties that receive it. Both Fayette and Washington counties get gaming revenue that is distributed to community projects. On Tuesday, Cook appeared at a Twilight council meeting, one of several stops he said he intends to make to educate local leaders about his concerns over which projects get funding, who’s deciding that and how it’s being decided.
Cook said the process needs to be “fair, transparent and accountable at all levels of government,” and expressed particular concern about whether Washington County handles it fairly.
Alterici, who also serves as chairman of the Washington County Tourism Agency’s board of directors, pressed Cook about why he didn’t answer a question posed to him about whether the DCED audits LSA committees and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
“You talk about transparency, but why didn’t you answer that question?” Alterici asked.
Cook told Alterici he didn’t answer the question about DCED audits “because I didn’t receive the right-to-know (answer) from DCED yet.”
The lawmaker said he’s filed right-to-know requests with the DCED and Washington County Redevelopment Authority to dig deeper into records that were kept by the county’s LSA committee, which decides to whom and how the funds are distributed. He said he did so because he is concerned there is a conflict of interest between those who hand out the funds and those who are receiving them.
During the meeting, Cook noted that Jeff Kotula has served as chairman of Washington County’s LSA Review Committee, as well as president of the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce – nonprofit organizations that also receive LSA funding.
Outside of the meeting, Alterici challenged Cook’s concerns about Kotula.
“Have you ever picked up the phone and asked Jeff how this works?” asked Alterici. “For whatever reason, I think you have an ax to grind with Jeff. You don’t like him personally.”
“Whatever you want to believe, you go ahead and believe,” said Cook.
Cook said he would rather be spending his time enacting legislation and meeting with constituents than looking at how LSA funds are distributed.
“I just want to make sure the process is transparent and that every municipality gets their fair share,” said Cook. “A small municipality like Twilight might only be getting $5,000 in LSA money. But that’s $5,000 that can be used for a road or another important project.”
He is seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would require LSA revenue to be distributed directly to Washington County school districts for the sole purpose of achieving additional property tax relief for homeowners.
“If we don’t establish this kind of reform, there will still be major concerns about conflicts of interest, as well as special interest earmarking of funds or insider deliberation of projects in advance of the grant presentations,” said Cook, who called for the LSA Review Committee to maintain and provide records of voting decisions, minutes and correspondence.
He additionally wants to set term limits for committee members, require them to complete an ethics statement regarding potential conflicts of interest and has asked the state auditor general to look into the matter.
Cook said he doesn’t want to do away with LSA funding – he just believes that it’s important to know the process undertaken to distribute it.
“It’s a game of connecting the dots and following the money. I’m not here to condemn or blame. I’m just questioning why there isn’t more transparency and accountability,” he said.