Thursday, March 30, 2000

Watchdog keeps county on its toes




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ELSMERE — Thank you, Los Angeles, for getting on Terry Whittaker's nerves. And thank you, Northern Kentucky, for charming her.

        After one visit here in 1990, Ms. Whittaker was hooked. She left L.A. and never looked back. Now she's showing us how to be, in the words of her attorney, a “great American.”

        Since December, Ms. Whittaker hasn't missed a meeting of Kenton County Fiscal Court, and she's not even trying to cure insomnia.

        She has helped form a group called Citizens Information and Awareness, which is publishing the voting records of local officials. It's also planning a door-to-door campaign to register voters.

        Kentucky is one of the few states that don't allow citizens to pass their own laws through referendums. This means if we don't vote, and our government screws up ... well, we got what we didn't bother to make better.

        Appreciating such connections is second nature to Ms. Whittaker, 40. She's a quick study, having graduated high school at 15. Her parents raised her on volunteerism. She works at home as a consultant to pharmaceutical companies, and in her free time, she indulges her affection for the underdog.

        This month, Ms. Whittaker became one.

        Kenton County commissioners didn't like an opinion she obtained from the attorney general's office regarding secret meetings. To appeal it, they had to sue Ms. Whittaker.

        Most of her relatives have relocated to Northern Kentucky. They were incensed: Their tax money was being used to sue an advocate for taxpayers. She remained calm, though her father and oldest brother cut short a Florida vacation to rally to her side.

        On Tuesday night, the court wisely dropped its suit, in exchange for a compromise. Ms. Whittaker agreed that one portion of the opinion went too far — a portion that seemed to forbid any discussion between elected officials outside of public meetings.

        That's not practical, Ms. Whittaker says. She doesn't mind when they educate themselves through occasional conversation. She just objects to conversation that influences votes.

        “As a resident and a citizen, I want to know what they're discussing. This is public business,” she says.

        Members of Citizens Information and Awareness are now attending meetings in Kenton County, Erlanger and Elsmere. They record the votes of each elected official, which are then published in a free monthly newsletter called “Watchdog.” This month's issue can be viewed at www.citizens.bizland.com.

        All this came about after Kenton County officials tried to put a jail in Elsmere, where Ms. Whittaker lives. There was a public outcry, and the Fiscal Court changed its mind.

        “When I heard Terry was involved, I knew they didn't have a chance. They were in trouble,” says Steve Schmidt, the police chief of Fort Thomas.

        He met Ms. Whittaker 10 years ago, when she was a reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Her specialty was determining whether suspects were high on drugs. On a visit to Covington, she taught her method to local police and fell in love with Kentucky, where even strangers treated her like a long-lost friend.

        After moving here, she helped Covington set up a neighborhood watch program. Her energy was boundless, says Mr. Schmidt, then with the Covington police.

        “A lot of people, I guess, just fall in line with whatever a government entity says. Well, Terry's not like that,” he says.

        After Kenton County dropped its Elsmere jail plans, Ms. Whittaker still filed a complaint alleging violations of open meetings and open records laws. These are what landed her in court.

        She isn't against any particular party or politician. She just has this notion they ought to be working for us.

        Thanks again, Los Angeles.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at (606) 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE