With Two Incumbents Not Running, Covington Commission Race Draws A Crowd
One thing is certain - Covington residents will elect at least two new city commissioners this year.
Incumbents Steve Frank and Chuck Eilerman are not running for re-election.
That has drawn a crowd of 10 Covington commission candidates who will be on the ballot in Tuesday's Kentucky primary.
The top eight finishers will then go on the November ballot; and voters in Covington will choose four of them to make up their new city commission.
About the candidates:
The 49-year-old single mother from Latonia was inspired two years ago to run for Covington commission by watching public meetings on cable access TV.
"I became fascinated by the process and the more I watched, the more I thought to myself, 'I can see myself being there; I could do that,''' Blair said.
She lost that race, but she is back again in Tuesday's primary, one of 10 candidates vying for eight spots on the November ballot.
"I think I represent a lot of people in Covington, especially here in Latonia,'' Blair said. "I work as a real estate agent, with my sister; I am a single mom. And I care about the neighborhood."
She is also disturbed by the lack of women on the ballot – only one of the other nine commission candidates is a woman, Michelle Williams, a former commissioner. And, of course, the current mayor, Sherry Carran, who is running for re-election, is a woman.
"I am running because I didn't see anybody really representing me,'' Blair said. "Not that many women get involved. I want to change that."
She said she sees herself as a candidate who can represent the interests of the many Covington residents who rent their homes.
"Not everyone can afford to buy a home,'' Blair said. "They deserve representation too."
If she is elected to the city commission, Blair said, she will focus on "basic services – clean streets, safety."
Latonia, on the south side of Covington, "has always been a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. But we have the crime here too, which is mostly driven by drugs. I've had police officers tell me that they need more resources from the city to fight the crime and drugs."
Blair said that, if elected, she will "have the time and flexibility to be a full-time commissioner."
I'm doing this,'' Blair said, "because I care about this city and I believe I can help make it better."
Downing is a 35-year-old data analyst who has lived in Covington for the past 20 years – in South Covington.
Over the years, he said, he has invited candidates for city commission and other offices into his home when they came knocking on his door, looking for his vote. Oftentimes, he said, he wasn't satisfied with what he heard from the candidates.
So he decided to try it himself.
"I was getting frustrated with much of what has been going on,'' Downing said. "There were two courses of action I could take – be frustrated or do something. I chose to do something."
Downing said he is very concerned about public safety in the city. The police and fire departments are working with out-of-date equipment and vehicles.
"It's called 'deferred maintenance' around here,'' Downing said. "That's not good enough. We can do better."
He said he is also concerned about the state of the Covington Independent Schools, which have been ranked by the Kentucky Department of Education at 170 of 173 school districts statewide.
The city commission has no direct role in the schools, but Downing said he believes there are ways that city government could work with school leaders to make the system better.
And, Downing says, more needs to be done to make the city's economy better for all of its citizens.
"Covington's problem at its core is an economic one,'' Downing said. "We're sitting on a big river. We have an airport in our back yard. We're right across the river from a major city. And I don't think we're really utilizing those assets."
The city is, he said, taking its "first baby steps" toward developing more downtown housing. And more could be done to make Covington and the region a tourist attraction.
"When you attract people from other cities to visit your city, you can really grow," Downing said.
If elected to the commission, Downing said, he would be constantly looking for ways of delivering services and doing the business of the city more efficiently.
"I've always been a person who can work in an environment where you do more with less,'' Downing said. "We have to find ways to work more efficiently to achieve the goals we all want to achieve in Covington."
Flesch is a stay-at-home dad who is a lawyer but does not have an active practice. He was born and raised in Covington; and loves the city. That, he said, is why he wants to be a member of the city commission – to continue the progress he said he has seen in making Covington a more livable community in recent years.
He is an optimist and proud of it.
"That's the good thing about Covington,'' the 54-year-old candidate said. "It is actually a very vibrant place to be right now.
"The people who are active in Covington are tremendous,'' Flescsh said. "We are building businesses here; they are many new residents making this their home. There's a new heartbeat to the city; and I want to see it continue."
Flesch said he believes he could help lead the city into the future.
"I bring the perspective of a property owner, a father, someone with a stake in this city,'' Flesch said.
He said he understands that, as a city commissioner, he would not have a role in the day-to-day operations of the city.
"We are not the professional managers of the city,'' Flesch said of the commission. "We are the decision-makers. We are the policy-makers.
"And, as a commissioner, I would want to be out about among the people listening to the people in every neighborhood of the city about their concerns,'' Flesch said. "I would be a commissioner who pays attention to the people."
Flesch said the present commission has "had a good year of revenues and cutting costs, but we can't depend on this every year. We have to be diligent; and careful with our spending."
As someone who has built houses and owns rental properties, Flesch said the city should be welcoming new residents who have practical skills – technicians, crafts people, builders and building supply businesses.
In the end, he said, he is doing this for the love of Covington.
"Covington's in my blood,'' Flesch said. "It is one of those places you can leave for months or even years and when you come back, you feel right at home. I want Covington to always be that way."
Horine may be a first-time candidate, but he is well known to many in Covington and in neighboring Campbell County.
He moved to Covington in 1969 as a 15-year-old. After earning a degree in urban studies from the University of Kentucky and masters in Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati in 1978, he went to work for the next 38 years as a government planner and administrator.
From 1984 to 1990, he was the Chief Planner of the city of Covington and served as the city's assistant city manager from 1990 to 1996. From 2002 to 2015, he crossed the Licking River to go to work each day as county administrator for the Campbell County Fiscal Court.
Covington has been home to Horine for the better part of five decades; and he said that now that he is retired from the daily work of being an administrator, he wants to contribute in a different way.
"I love this city,'' Horine said. "It has given me wonderful opportunities over the years and I want nothing more than to see it succeed."
Horine said he believes the two commissioners who have decided not to run for re-election, Frank and Eilerman, represent a great loss for the city.
"These are two very bright guys, with great experience,'' Horine said. "They will be missed.
"Having two vacancies on city commission is a big deal,'' Horine said. "If people get elected who don't know what they are doing, it might not be very good the city going into the future."
With 38 years of local government experience, Horine said, he believes he has the knowledge and know-how to do this job.
"Covington is absolutely on the right track,'' Horine said. "This commission has done a good job of keeping this city on track."
But there is always more that can be done, Horine said.
On his campaign website, he lists some of his priorities: maintaining and improving infrastructure, delivering "top notch" police and fire services, attracting new business development , supporting "grassroots citizens' initiatives," "attract and retain high quality professional staff," and working with county, state and federal agencies.
"One thing I have learned as I campaign in this city is that there are things happening in the neighborhoods,'' Horine said. "When there are problems, I am seeing people in the neighborhoods taking the initiative to do something about it and work with city government. That is a good thing."
Horine said his motivation for running is simple – a desire to help the city he loves.
"I don't need the job,'' Horine said. "I'm doing it out of love and commitment to Covington."
Two years ago, Huizenga was elected to city commission at the age of 28.
Now, he is looking for another term in order to continue work on what he calls on his campaign website the "primary areas of focus" – job creation and business development, housing and neighborhood stability and quality education.
He is not a native of Covington, but he says he has come to love the city.
"Not everyone is blessed enough to be born in Covington or to grow up here, but I made the decision to move to this community and plant my roots,'' he wrote on his website. "I could have moved into any neighborhood in greater Cincinnati and still keep my job, but I chose Covington because I saw opportunity and I saw potential.
Huizenga grew up on Cincinnati's east side, and graduated from the University of Dayton. Today, he works as director of development for Children Inc., an organization that offers child care and early childhood education programs in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Huizenga responded to a questionnaire for 2016 primary candidates from Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. He said on that questionnaire that he wants to "ensure that all residents have access to meaningful employment and to build on economic development in every part of the city."
He also said that he will focus on other issues if re-elected, including:
· "grow the number of affordable housing units throughout Northern Kentucky and work to de-concentrate subsidized housing in the small number of Covington neighborhoods where it is most concentrated."
· Develop and implement an economic development plan that "attracts jobs at a variety of pay and skill levels."
· Work with Gateway Community College to continue development of its urban campus in Covington.
"I believe Covington's future is bright,'' Huizenga wrote on his campaign website. "That if we work together with smart and nimble government to make strategic investments in our community, we can be a thriving city."
Covington, he wrote, "deserves a competitive business environment," which he said means continued investments in infrastructure to "improve our business district and our neighborhoods."
He would also like to see "unified efforts to market Covington businesses to the broader community" and "ensure city government that is easy to work with and fast to respond that helps business."
"With good leadership and collaboration, I believe Covington can continue to grow and develop and we all need to work together to get there,'' Huizenga said on the campaign website.
Mims ran two years ago for commission and lost. But he is a familiar face, attending many commission meetings over the past several years and always speaking out on issues he believes are important.
Mims sent WVXU copies of his campaign literature. According to the campaign piece, he is a landlord in Covington and a "team leader for a team of correspondence examiners that are specialized in resolving identity theft for the U.S. Treasury based in Covington."
He said in his campaign literature that he has "successfully challenged members of the city commission and the mayor over taking away residents' right to address the city commission during meetings. He also challenged the commission over dodging their responsibility to maintain city pools."
In his campaign literature, Mims outlined his agenda, if elected:
· "A more resident and business friendly city hall that puts personal strife aside for the greater good of the city."
· "Aggressively attract large companies to the city and work to retain them for long term growth that will create worthwhile employment for our residents that will lead to home ownership."
· "Maintain a balance of market rate and affordable, quality housing."
· "Start on citywide development and give residents a voice and an opportunity to take part in the process."
· "Be mindful of our limited city financial resources."
· "Transparency posting of all our non-executive meetings on YouTube and posting of bids and awarded contracts on the city's website."
In a questionnaire Mims filled out for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth's Voter Guide, he argued that city government itself must change to attract jobs.
"We need to change the culture of city hall by being more open to new ideas and to put aside personal feelings,'' Mims wrote. "I want to make sure City Hall does more to provide opportunities for our residents by aggressively reaching out to medium to large companies looking to move for the long term and provide meaningful employment opportunities."
Shull, who works for a temporary job service, describes himself as the "Christian far right" candidate in the Covington Commission race.
Shull could not be reached by WVXU for comment on his campaign, but Michael Monks, editor and publisher of the River City News, recently recorded a 24 minute interview with the candidate which can be found at www.rcnky.com.
In the interview, Shull said he had put up about $110 worth of campaign signs proclaiming him to be the "Christian far right" candidate, but state election officials told him he had to take them down because they did not include a disclaimer saying who had paid for them.
Shull said he wasn't aware of the law. He said if he survives the primary and runs this fall, he will have new signs saying that he paid for them.
In fact, during the 24 minute interview, it turned out there were many things Shull was not aware of. He was unable to answer most of Monk's questions about issues impacting Covington and couldn't identify a number of the city's landmarks.
"I'll study the issues,'' Shull told Monk. "I'll do my best.
"I'm green,'' Shull said. "I don't know what's going on. But I'll get in there and learn."
He did talk about getting up at a recent city commission meeting and saying that the city should not require landlords to rent properties to gays.
Shull said he is running "to inspire other Christian men to run for office." Although he describes himself as the "Christian" candidate, he told Monk that "I ain't going to church right now. I know that doesn't sound too good."
Shull told Monk he is a Christian because he "loves everybody."
"I tell people about Jesus,'' Shull said."I tell them I love them and, more important, that Jesus loves them."
On the presidential race, Shull told Monk "I like Trump. I wanted Bernie (Sanders) to win. I liked the hippies when I was young. They were cool."
Warren is a 28-year-old first time candidate who is working on finishing his doctorate in political science at the University of Cincinnati, while serving there as a researcher and a teaching assistant.
A graduate of Eastern Kentucky University and Southern Seminary, Warren has worked in the Kentucky Secretary of State's office, the European-Atlantic Group in London and worked on numerous local, statewide and national campaigns.
He and his wife live in the Wallace Woods neighborhood of Covington; and he is active in the neighborhood association.
Warren said he believes his neighborhood has a problem that needs to be fixed.
"We're losing young couples, young families,'' Warren said. "I want to see this area be the best place that young people can come to and raise their families."
Covington's neighborhoods south of 12th Street have a multitude of problems, Warren said.
"You look at Latonia and you see that the number of vacant properties is enormous,'' Warren told WVXU. "It is just urban blight. And something needs to be done to take down these properties as soon as possible."
In the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth's candidate questionnaire, Warren said there are serious problems of unemployment in many of the city's neighborhoods.
"Gainful employment can only be achieved when employment opportunities exist,'' Warren said. "Our city has been hemorrhaging residential and business assets which, in turn, caused our tax revenue base to shrink. Latonia has perhaps felt the brunt of this."
It will only turn around, Warren said, with tax and fee reform.
"Doing so will help every neighborhood in Covington, north and south of 12th Street,'' Warren said.
On his website, Warren wrote that "lowered taxes will attract more businesses and new residents. Lowered taxes will create opportunity for current residents to start a business where they live."
"Covington is on the cusp of true greatness,'' Warren wrote on his campaign website. "Madison Avenue is particularly experiencing great growth, but we must do all we to keep our new neighbors in town"
A vibrant economy, Warren said, "is the first step toward making our city a better place. Together, we can create an environment that ensures Covington achieves the greatness it deserves."
Wells, a resident of South Covington, won election to Covington Commission two years ago; and is running for a second term.
He believes his first term has earned him another.
"One of the things that has happened over the past two years is that Jordan (Huizenga) and I have brought civility back to the city commission,'' said Wells, who has been a professional mechanic for 40 years, maintaining fleet equipment.
One thing that has happened over the past two years is that Covington is doing a much better job enforcing building codes.
"We used to have code enforcement officers making excuses for property owners who were in violation of code,'' Wells told WVXU. "That is a thing of the past.
"I personally know of three slumlords who don't do business in this city anymore because the building codes are being enforced,'' Wells said.
Wells said that if he is re-elected, he will continue to push for enabling legislation to create a land bank, which would allow vacant properties to be developed and put to a productive use.
"That is something we need badly in this city, particularly in certain neighborhoods," Wells said.
Every neighborhood in Covington has its own problems that need to be addressed, Wells said. But there needs to be an overall plan to address then "because what happens in one neighborhood is sooner or later going to happen in others."
Wells said that while he has been in office, "I've seen $50 million in investments coming to Covington, new development.
He pointed to the Duveneck Square project, a mixed-use development project and the redevelopment of the Lincoln-Grant School, which has been closed since 2003.
The Lincoln-Grant School, Wells said, is being turned into housing that will create housing for 48 single-parent families so the parents can pursue a college education.
Wells said that, as a professional mechanic, he is concerned about the age and condition of the city's public safety vehicles and wants to invest in replacing old police cruisers and fire trucks.
"It's been eight years since the city got a new fire truck and three years since we've bought a new police car,'' Wells said. "We need to do better than this."
William was elected to city commission in 2012, but lost her bid for re-election in 2014. She is trying to make a comeback this year.
"I feel like I was forced to leave just as I was getting started,'' said Williams, a Covington resident for 11 years. "I feel like there is much more unfinished business."
She said she came to Covington to open a nail salon. She has since closed that business and said she is studying aviation technology at Sinclair Community College's Mason campus. When she graduates, she said, she wants to start a drone company.
But, for now, returning to council is first on her agenda.
The first thing the city commission must do, Williams said, is invest in public safety.
"We have to take care of the needs of the police and fire departments," Williams said. "It's not working now.
"And dispatch is going to need new radios,'' Williams said. "None of that is in the budget now."
Williams said that when she was on council she "always pushed for riverfront development" and job-creating development in the neighborhoods.
"We have a hundred plans that have been developed over the years, but if we don't follow through, you just have 100 plans,'' Williams said. "Plans are useless without action."
Williams said that she hopes each Covington neighborhood will develop an active, outspoken neighborhood association that can bring its concerns directly to the city commission.
"The fact is that if you have a strong neighborhood association, you get listened to at city hall,'' Williams said.