Councilman Lanshima defends his absences while in Nigeria this summer, won’t resign

Metro Councilman Vitalis Lanshima, D-21 | Photo by Joe Sonka

Metro Councilman Vitalis Lanshima, D-21, who colleagues at city hall and constituents have been unable to reach for over a month, has returned to Louisville from Nigeria and held a news conference Wednesday afternoon, defending his many absences from council meetings this summer and criticizing those who are “obsessed” with his whereabouts.

In late August, Lanshima first told Insider Louisville that he was considering running for the House of Representatives next year in Nigeria, where he was born and emigrated from in the early 2000s. He confirmed his run in a Facebook post days later, stating that he would not campaign in Nigeria during his last four months in office as the District 21 council member.

However, council records show that Lanshima has missed the majority of meetings of the council and the committees he’s served on since losing the Democratic primary for his seat in May, including all 10 meetings from August 14 until Tuesday. Lanshima also missed meetings when he traveled to Nigeria in late June and July.

Additionally, council members and staff — in addition to constituents who have complained on social media — have been unable to contact Lanshima over the past month and did not know if he was in Louisville or out of the country.

Lanshima — who said he arrived back in Louisville from Nigeria last night, where he has been since August — dismissed those concerns in his news conference, stating that unnamed members who have complained about his absences have just as many, if not more, than him.

As for the inability of council members, staff and constituents to reach him, Lanshima said that his iPhone has been broken for the past month, but moments later contradicted himself by saying that every single constituent who tried to contact him this summer has been able to reach him. Despite his absence from city hall this summer and complaints by constituents, Lanshima said he has been “one of the most active council members this year” and is “very present in my district.”

Lanshima’s news conference comes a day after a Metro Council committee meeting in which Councilwoman Cindi Fowler, D-14, called for an investigation into whether he holds his council seat legally, citing a state law requiring such members to be a “qualified voter” in their district. Fowler and the Jefferson County Attorney’s office questioned whether Lanshima would be a legal voter if he was also registered to vote in Nigeria, as another state law prohibits a voter from being registered in two different places, though not explicitly mentioning another country.

Asked about that issue, Lanshima stated that he is registered to vote in Nigeria, but asserted that this does not disqualify him from holding office in Kentucky. While several council members at the meeting Tuesday questioned the ramifications of letting a legally ineligible member vote on legislation, Lanshima defiantly stated that he would not resign and he would serve out his term until it expires in December.

The Government Oversight committee returns again from another meeting on Wednesday to continue the discussion about whether or not Lanshima holds the seat legally, and the councilman said that he would attend the meeting and answer their questions.

Lanshima was appointed by Metro Council last December after former District 21 Councilman Dan Johnson was thrown out of office, winning the votes of all Republican members along with five Democrats. Nicole George finished a close second in that vote, but would up winning the Democratic primary over Lanshima this May by a large margin.

As for his decision to run for office in Nigeria, Lanshima said he was doing so to help the country he was born and raised in as it goes through serious challenges, but added that he would not have done so had he won the Metro Council election this year.

Lanshima called the uproar over his absences and questions over Kentucky statutes “a manufactured crisis,” blaming “sore winners or sore losers” in city hall for leading attacks against him and the media for being “obsessed” with where he has been.

Asked if he could have handled the situation better this summer by keeping his colleagues and constituents informed, Lanshima said that he was very transparent, citing his Facebook post on Aug. 31 in which he stated that he would run for office in Nigeria in 2019.

Metro Councilwoman Cindi Fowler, D-14 | Photo by Joe Sonka

Lanshima added in the news conference that he would not go to Nigeria again until his term is over, but in that same Facebook post in August he had also said that he would not campaign in Nigeria over the next four months — despite the fact that he was there when the post was made and would stay in Nigeria for another month as he missed 10 straight council meetings.

Asked about the news conference by Insider, Fowler sighed and answered, “I’m still trying to absorb all of that.”

Fowler went on to state that Lanshima is “missing the point” about the legal question over whether he can hold office in Kentucky while being a registered voter somewhere else, in addition to stating that District 21 residents are not getting the representation that they deserve from their council member.

She also said Lanshima’s assertion that every constituent that has tried to reach him this summer has done so successfully is flatly false.

“We’ve had phone calls in my office, and I know other people who live in the district have said he was unable to be gotten a hold of, or anybody in that office,” said Fowler. “My concern is that District 21 constituents have had a rough time in the last year and a half, and they should be able to have representation present here in the states, working for them.”

Fowler added that she also has concerns over “the legitimacy of our votes,” if Lanshima is in fact not a legal member of Metro Council, which are questions that must now be investigated and answered.

Lanshima makes $48,000 a year as a council member, and has been paid in full over the first nine months of 2018. Asked if he would return any of his salary for meetings he missed, Lanshima said he would do so if other council members returned their salary for meetings that they had missed, too.