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Covington mayoral candidates square off in contentious forum at Madison Event Center Thursday

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

It has been a foregone conclusion since incumbent  Sherry Carran and former State Legislator Joe Meyer announced their candidacies for mayor of Covington that they would square off in the November General Election.

Covington mayoral candidates, incumbent Sherry Carran and Joe MAyor met at a candidate forum at the Madison Event Center Thursday

Covington mayoral candidates, incumbent Sherry Carran and former State Legislator Joe Meyer, discussed issues in a  forum at the Madison Event Center Thursday

Just as obvious has been their differing visions for Covington and how they planned to achieve them.

In an often contentious candidate forum at the Madison Event Center in Covington Thursday, presented by the Covington Business Council and Latonia Business Association, those differences were on full display.

The candidates discussed a wide range of issues, including the Brent Spence Bridge, what to do with the IRS property and the ongoing battle against heroin addiction. While there was some common ground, (both agreed needle exchange is a good idea) it’s clear that Carran and Meyer have very different views on the state of the city and how to lead Covington.

Carran believes there is a spirit of cooperation in Covington and the city is on the right path. Meyer says retaliation and infighting at City Hall is hampering the city’s efforts to move forward.

Carran had been engaged in Covington and its communities for years before beginning her political career. She served three terms as a city commissioner before becoming mayor in January, 2013.

Meyer served as secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and was a member of the General Assembly for 15 years as a state representative and state senator. He was also a senior policy advisor for former Gov. Steve Beshear and then-State Auditor Crit Luallen.

Moderator Dan Hurley of WKRC-TV started off by asking the candidates to identify the city’s biggest assets.

Meyer identified the city’s location on the river and its proximity to Cincinnati, which he said enables Covington to capitalize on its skyline views and the riverfront growth taking place  there.

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran, speaks to the crowd at Thursday's forum (photos by Mark Hansel).

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran, speaks to the crowd at Thursday’s forum (photos by Mark Hansel).

“What’s really getting wind at the back of redevelopment in Covington is the appeal of urban living. So many young people are invested now and willing to move back to urban area, it’s a great opportunity for us if we take advantage of it,” Meyer said. “The third big element is the creativity and the energy of the people who live here. The people who live in Covington love their neighborhoods, they love this city.”

Carran agreed, but said she and the current city commission have been building momentum using those attributes for some time.

“I served with the Smart Growth Coalition of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky back in 2001 and a lot of the things are binging that interest into the city, the urban core, are things that we worked on,” Carran said. “Some say we are at a pivotal point, I believe we are past that point. Millennials are wanting to live here, empty nesters are wanting to live here, but it’s not because we are just an urban core, it’s because of things we have been doing for a long period of time.”

Carran responded to a question about who she would like to see elected to the four-member city commission by naming two incumbents, Bill Wells and Jordan Huizenga, along with candidates Stuart Warren and John Flesch.

City Commissioners Steve Frank and Chuck Eilerman are not seeking reelection. Chirsti Blair, Michelle Williams and Tim Downing are the other city commission candidates.

Meyer said he thought highly of all of the candidates and would work with whomever was elected. He criticized Carran for “picking sides before the game even begins” and said that is one of the reasons he believes city government is not working.

“This happy talk about how wonderful things are is offset by the fact that commissioners don’t know how to get items on the agenda,” Meyer said. “I have a commissioner who says the mayor hasn’t talked to him for three years.”

It’s no secret that the commissioner he was referring to is Frank.

Carran said Frank has routinely attacked her through the media, but rather than be pulled into the discussion, she has tried to take the higher ground. She said Frank knows how to get items placed on the agenda, but has been dissatisfied with the direction of the city under her leadership for some time and has gone to great lengths to usurp her.

“Regarding the commission, in (2013 and 2014); Commissioner Steve Frank thought he was the power vote,” Carran said. “They actually were trying to do away with (city manager) Larry Klein and (Meyer) was part of that discussion because Joe was going to be made city manager if they were successful in their bid to get rid of Larry. There’s a lot of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, part of my responsibility is to create a positive image and not to be pulled in to the negative dialogue.”

From that point, the gloves were off and the discussion became increasingly contentious.

Meyer criticized the city’s relationship with the unions, the type of economic incentives offered to attract new businesses and an untenable work environment that has resulted in a large turnover among city staff.

“I do not agree with retaliation against those who disagree with me on a political issue or a policy issue, which would be a change for this community,” Meyer said. “Covington has had huge personnel problems and there is a reason for that turnover. We’ve lost a ton of young, bright people and it’s because of management-related issues.”

Carran responded that the City of Covington under her leadership has become an excellent proving ground for young professionals and provides great opportunities.

“We have a young professional staff, which is one of the things I am most proud of,” Carran said.” What happens is, they are doing so well and word gets out and they are lured by other people in other cities. I see that as a good thing. Regarding retaliation, I don’t think there has ever been a case of retaliation, Joe is going by rumors.”

She added that the disputes between the City and its unions has been overblown.

Covington mayoral candidate Joe Meyer at Thursday's forum.

Covington mayoral candidate Joe Meyer at Thursday’s forum.

“During union negotiations it’s always tense and then you put elections on top of that where you have candidates telling unions what they want to hear, it makes it worse,” Carran said. “The city commission and the city manager have the utmost respect for our police and fire, and our public improvement workers, and we do everything we can to make their quality of life better.”

Meyer disagreed, saying the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had to force the city to pay for bulletproof vests for police officers and the U.S. Department of Labor intervened to ensure officers were reimbursed for mileage on mandatory training exercises.

“Playing with the safety of the people who we put on the streets to protect us is unacceptable and it was retaliatory,” Meyer said. “I want unions to be full partners with us. The city can’t be successful unless our cops and firefighters are successful too.”

On a subject that has been a hot topic for a long time, the Brent Spence Bridge replacement, the candidates were also far apart.

Carran supports replacing the aging structure, which has been described as functionally obsolete, and agrees that a modest toll to help with funding is a practical solution. Meyer does not support tolls or the replacement of the bridge, saying it would be disastrous for Covington.

There were also disagreements about how and when the IRS property would be repurposed after it is vacated in 2019.

Carran said the City is already in discussions with U.S. Government agencies and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to determine when the property can be available for reuse. Meyer said there is a long process, even after government property has been declared as surplus, and it could take 20 to 30 years for the land to become available.

In closing, Meyer said there is a lack of accountability at City Hall and way too much politics.

“There is more debt than the city can afford…and we have a city government that’s hard to work with,” Meyer said. “My vision for Covington – a far more transparent government, clear rules, clear direction from the commission and eased regulatory burden. I want Covington to have a government that people want to work with, that’s reliable and trusted to do the right thing and a place where the City’s word is respected”

In her summary, Carran said Covington is already the type of city Meyer wants.

“Joe states, (he) want Covington to have a city government where people want to work, a government that’s reliable and trusted to do the right thing and where the city’s word is respected,” Carran said. “If you question those words, you will find that most of things are already here in Covington, it gives the impression that they don’t exist. The City’s reputation is the best it’s ever been and this is why businesses and people want to be a part of the positive energy.”

The complete forum will be available for online viewing at TBNK at a later date.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

You may be interested in these stories– Mayoral candidates Sherry Carran and Joseph Meyer speak directly to Trib readers on ‘Why I Should be Mayor.’

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