Incumbent Carran And Challenger Meyer Locked In Heated Race For Covington Mayor
One of the most contentious races in the region is taking place in Covington, where voters in Northern Kentucky's largest city are choosing a mayor.
On one side is the incumbent, Sherry Carran, a former city commissioner who was first elected mayor in 2012; and on the other, Joe Meyer, a former state representative and state senator who headed the state's Education and Workforce Development Cabinet under former governor Steve Beshear.
In Covington, the city's governing body is a five-member city commission. The four commissioners serve two-year terms, but the mayor, who is also a voting member of the commission, holds a four-year term.
Carran and her husband Bob live in the Botany Hills section of Covington in a home she designed and helped build, with her background in architecture. Before making Covington their home in 1990, she and her husband were involved in the revitalization of 314 Greenup Street, a historically-designated building that had once been the office and home of John W. Stevenson, a 19th century attorney who served in the U.S. Senate.
She began her political career in 2007, after being elected to the Covington city commission. She served three two-year terms as a commissioner before she was elected the city's first female mayor in 2013. She served two four-year terms on the Kenton County Conservation District, working on issues related to land use, farmland, storm water management and transportation. Her work on farmland issues led to Covington being selected as the site of a regional farmers' market. She was the manager of the Covington Farm Market during its first year of its operations.
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Many in Covington have described Carran's campaign theme as "stay the course;" and she doesn't dispute that.
She believes that past four years have been good ones for Covington, particularly in terms of downtown development.
If she is re-elected, there will be a new city commission to work with. The two longest-serving commissioners, Chuck Eilerman and Steve Frank, are not running for re-election. Eilerman has been an ally of Carran; Frank has supported her on some issues, but not others.
All four commission seats are up for election.
Carran told WVXU that at the beginning of her second term as mayor, she wants to get together with the new commission, City Manager Larry Klein and other key staff people "and kind of get a comfort level with each other."
"We did this the last time and we worked out what we called 'spirit of progress' goals,'' Carran said. "Those goals gave us focus and the ability to prioritize where we put our city resources."
Carran says that, as mayor, she uses the skills she learned as a private citizen
"Even from the get-go, I was more of a community volunteer long before being a city commissioner,'' Carran said. "So I think I have been able to work well with the public, with the neighborhood groups.
"One of the things that I am very proud of is that, in Covington, we have more than just public input, we have meaningful city engagement,'' Carran said. "Sometimes it's a little messy because it is hard to please everybody. But, for the most part, we use the public and its ideas as our guiding light."
In her time as mayor, Carran said, she has been able to accomplish "some really, really good things."
"I'm proud of the work I did with the guidelines to protect our hillsides; I'm very proud of the urban forestry program we've started; and I'm especially proud that Covington is now the home to the regional farmer's market,'' Carran said.
The city got a jolt several months ago when they learned that one of the largest employers in the region, the IRS Center in Covington, would be closed by the federal government by 2019. That represents a loss of about 1,800 full-time, part-time and temporary employees. Having the IRS Center in Covington brings about $1.5 million in revenue into the city each year, Carran said.
City officials have been talking with the IRS and she said it is clear that the federal government is not going to change its mind. The Covington facility handles paper tax returns; and the trend is toward electronic filing. Eventually, the IRS will go from five facilities handling paper returns to two and Covington will not be one of them, she said.
The city is working with Gateway Technical and Community College on ways of retraining workers, Carran said.
"But when it comes to retraining employees, you have to have further employment opportunities for them,'' Carran said.
Carran's opponent has been critical of the city's job creation and retention policies.
"Actually, I think our record is very good,'' Carran said. "I know my opponent is saying the opposite, but I think that is coming from people who are not familiar with doing development in the urban core, which is very different from doing development on a clean piece of property in the suburbs.
"Once developers make contact with the city and they have a point person to go to, we are very welcoming and we do everything to make it as easy as possible,'' Carran said.
Meyer's family has been in Covington for four generations. He earned a law degree from Northern Kentucky University, a master's degree in urban affairs from St. Louis University and a bachelor's degree from Bellarmine College. He served in the legislative and executive branches of state government for more than 30 years.
His political career began in 1982 when he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. He served in that body through 1988, and chaired the House Cities Committee.
In 1989, he was elected to the state senate where he spent the next seven years. As a state senator, he was chair of the State and Local Government Committee and the Senate Education Committee.
After he left the Senate, he served as a senior policy advisor to Gov. Steve Beshear and State Auditor Crit Luallen. He also had stints as chief of staff for the House majority caucus and was general counsel and deputy director for the Kentucky Association of Counties.
In 2009, Beshear appointed Meyer Secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He stayed in that job until 2013.
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On the issues:
Meyer told WVXU that, if elected, his first act would be to try to "bring some sanity" to the way city government operates.
"Believe it or not, the very first thing I want to have done is for the city commission to adopt rules of procedure for the conduct of city commission meetings,'' Meyer said.
"It's really startling, but I've had incumbent city commissioners tell me that they don't know how to get items on the commission agenda for consideration."
Everything, he said, goes through City Manager Larry Klein.
"I could not imagine the city of Cincinnati's council allowing City Manager (Harry) Black to set their agenda,'' Meyer said "I don't think it would go very far."
Meyer said he, too, is unhappy with the decision of the IRS to shut down its processing center in Covington by 2019, but said that, because of federal rules and regulations, there isn't much that can be done about it and it will be a long time before that property can be redeveloped.
The federal government, he said, "has to offer the property to every other federal agency across the nation and so you are looking at a three to five year process before the property is declared surplus and can be turned over to other hands who could develop it."
"I think it's fair to say you're looking at decades – 15 to 20 years –before that site gets redeveloped,'' Meyer said.
In the meantime, Meyer said, "Covington has to refocus its economic development programs. I think we have to work really hard to support the companies that are already here and encourage them to grow."
Covington has lost plenty of other jobs in recent years, Meyer said, such as the decision by Omnicare to move its offices from Covington to Cincinnati.
Covington's city government, Meyer said, hasn't created a very friendly environment for economic growth.
"Business leaders tell me that Covington city government is very hard to work with,'' Meyer said. "They tell me they don't know what the rules are. More than one has told me they just don't think they would get a fair shot dealing with Covington city government on development."
The city, Meyer said, "has to become very transparent; that when we have rules and programs that we lay those out very clearly, to engage with our business community in a very supportive, as opposed to a commanding, way. We need to be there to meet their needs and help them grow."
Meyer is just generally displeased with how the city commission-city manager form of government operates; and he says he does not lay all the blame at the feet of Carran, although he believes she is part of the problem.
"All of the executive and all of the legislative authority is invested in the city commission as a whole,'' Meyer said. "And they have a history of not holding their professional staff responsible.
"So, yes, I hold the city commission responsible because they're the deciders,'' Meyer said.
They have made mistakes in recent years such as eliminating ambulance services and reducing fire protection in South Covington, an area of town that has economic struggles.
"I would restore that," Meyer said.
"And the city government has ignored economic development in Latonia,'' Meyer said, referring to another neighborhood that suffers from unemployment and blight.
"If I become mayor,'' Meyer said, "I can guarantee you that whole neighborhoods of Covington are not going to be ignored by city government."