Part Two: Candidates for Covington Mayor Debate

If you missed part one of the coverage from Monday night's debate between Covington mayoral candidates Sherry Carran and Steve Casper, both current city commissioners, click here. Part two is below:

Casper has spent the past few months pushing an idea to create Bellagio-style fountains In Mainstrasse Village's Goebel Park and along the riverfront. "Bellagio (in Las Vegas) has dedicated its single most valuable space to a fountain. Why?," Casper asked. "Because it attracts people." Part of the first-term commissioner's plan that was laid out Monday night included the creation of more gathering places such as at the underutilized park and through the building an entertainment destination on Seventh Street at Madison Avenue Downtown, similar to Louisville's Fourth Street Live. 

Carran is not sold on the idea. "It's a pretty picture but I have a concern that there hasn't been any buy-in from anyone else on this idea," Carran said. "I know he's presented it to a number of neighborhoods but when I talk to people in Mainstrasse they feel, 'where are our plans on this', because I know a lot of people have plans in place for that area of Goebel Park." Asked if she had any "big ideas" of her own, Carran, who's served on the commission for six years, said she's got plenty. "I don't lack ideas. I've got plenty of ideas," she said. "It's not what I want. It's what the community wants as a whole." She noted her work with Covington's riverfront masterplan. "That came about from business leaders and residents in the area. For one person to go out on their own idea as a city leader, that's not in me."

"The fact is, I met with both the business group from Mainstrasse and the resident group to find out their thoughts related to it," Casper countered. "Whether it be a fountain or a skating rink or some other attraction, the whole point is the businesses are totally dependent on Oktoberfest and Maifest and they can't survive without those two. I'm trying to develop a twelve-month program where there is a draw." He added that he has the support of Covington philanthropist Oakley Farris. "I was gratified when I threw out the suggestion, one prominent citizen offered $100,000 towards the project and that told me I was on the right track."

"If it has buy-in from the surrounding community and also Goebel Park is part of Mainstrasse, then I would support it," Carran said, "but as I said, there are plenty of projects on the table right now that we should be focusing on. People are saying, what's the good in these plans if nothing ever comes of it?"

In one part of the debate, the two panelists (Pat Frew of the Covington Business Council and Michael Monks of The River City News and author of this post) had the chance to engage each candidate in direct questioning for four minutes each.

Recently it became known that a private company set up through the Housing Authority of Covington, known as Neighborhood Investment Partners, was close to defaulting on the apartment complex known as Emery Drive. Three of the members of NIP's board of directors also serve concurrently on the Housing Authority's board of commissioners. Casper also serves on HAC's board of commissioners and was asked if he failed to maintain proper oversight of the organization. 

"No, not at all," he said. "In fact, I'm the one that has helped ride herd over the one investment that NIP did make, Emery apartments, where (HAC) staff unilaterally without any concensus went into default on the payments. Once it was brought to my attention, I was the one that insisted the payments be continued until resolve is made for Emery apartments. It's not my sole responsibility, however I've been rather vocal that HAC needs to go in a different direction and hopefully that will take place."

One concern was that since the NIP's financing came through the Cincinnati Development Fund and a default could hurt the efforts of the Catalytic Development Fund which hopes to lead many new housing developments in Covington through the same lenders. "It's not going to have any relationship to (the city's) credit rating," Casper said. "Some of the same lenders are part of the Catalytic Fund, so that was the reason I stepped up and said default was not an option. What we are trying to do is reshape Emery apartments." Casper said he and city leaders recently toured apartments in Over-the-Rhine managed by an organization called Cornerstone Properties that uses a renter equity model and that that may be a good standard for Emery to follow.


Carran's effort to hire a second full-time arborist
At a city commission meeting a couple weeks ago during which employees in the code enforcement department were officially terminated because of a restructuring at City Hall, an additional item on the agenda caused an awkward moment on the dais. Carran supported the hiring of a full-time arborist but the issue was denied a vote when no one else on the commission, including Casper, offered a second to her motion. The issue died. Carran still supports the idea. 
"It was called out in Vision 2015," she said. "Urban forestry is key to making cities more livable. Agenda 360 calls out quality of place. Urban forestry creates vitality in our communities, makes the air quality healthier to breather, calms traffic and in the right place has been known to calm bad behavior."
Asked to elaborate on a recent comment she made on a Sunday morning television show, Carran reiterated that her and Casper's "approaches are different." "I work well with staff and I consider staff to be key on how the city functions and we do have a city manager form of government. (Staff is) excellent. We have some of the best staff the city has ever had right now, so I go to them for their opinions and for guidance. My approach is that I am comfortable with a team format." Carran noted her service over the past twelve to fourteen years with non-profits and the Kenton County conservation district. "The key is civic engagement and that's what I brought to the city. Before, it was more for show."
Which candidate would be best at improving employee morale?
Following two years of budget cuts, lay offs, attrition, and more, many city employees have been described as having low morale during this period of uncertainty at City Hall. "I'm pleased to tell you that after two years on the commission that I am the only one that hasn't gotten into some row with employees or residents," said Casper. "That's not my style. If I have an issue it would be done behind closed doors. In terms of morale, I'm not waiting to become mayor." He noted his recent ride-alongs with the police department and an ambulance team, "to get a sense of what their life is like on the job."
For her part, Carran said that she is human and has made some mistakes and also noted that she has been on the receiving end of some public backlash from city workers. "I take it and I know it's important that they need to vent," she said. "One of the things I've always wanted to do is have brainstorming sessions with each employee in the departments. They're the guys who are out on the street doing their jobs, connecting with the public and I don't think we've used their knowledge to improve the workload that we're providing." She added that she would interested in a program similar to the one Mayor Chuck Scheper initiated when he first took office, "Coffee with Chuck", which allowed for a casual morning conversation with employees. "I think employees appreciated that opportunity and I think that's key."
On the proposed Business Improvement District (BID) for Downtown Covington
A proposed business improvement district for Downtown Covington would require fifty-percent of the commercial property owners representing more than half of the entire property value Downtown to approve the idea of assessing themselves an additional tax to fund outdoor maintenance, clean-up, and promotional activities. Casper and Carran support the BID. "As I understand it in other cities, these people act as ambassadors to those who are visiting," Casper said. "To me, that is a critical component to assure that the visitors know exactly what services the visitors can receive. The ambassador level to me is the most important part."
"Our BID needs to pay attention to the little things that the city is not going to be able to do," Carran said. "It will give it that little extra care that is needed. What (the Urban Partnership) has done so far is amazing and people realize it. The litter removal, graffiti, something other people don't have time to do. Once this gets organized and there is a plan in place I hope that it does for us what it did for Cincinnati."
What would the candidate like to be able to see on Madison Avenue when they look back on their term(s) in office as mayor?
"I see it as a place of activity, people congregating, talking, where it's a happy place, it's a place where people come Cincinnati to over here like we go over to Findlay Market," Carran said. "People will be coming over here. It's a pretty place, comfortable, inviting, tree-lined, and our store fronts are going to be vibrant, not drab and dirty. It can happen. It's not far fetched and sometimes it's just the little things."
"I see it as 'Mad Ave'", Casper said, "filled with restaurants, working off Riverside Korean and Amerasia. Chicago has lots of blocks with six or seven restaurants in a row. I'd love to have international flavor there. Conventioneers need a place to go, Gateway College with upwards of five thousand students, they're going to need to eat as well and spend money in retail shops."
How do your strengths outweigh the strengths of your opponent?
Following a question about how their strengths compare and contrast, each candidate ended up listing awards bestowed upon them. "I have forty years of business experience," Casper said. "I've owned my own company. I understand budgets, I've worked under other umbrellas. I understand the collaborative aspect that is necessary. More importantly is what other people think. I've received awards in ever venue I've participated." He highlight awards such as Citizen of the Year in Wyoming, Ohio, two Realtor of the Year awards, and a distinguished service award by the national realtor organization. "There are only forty-two of us alive (that have won that award) out of a million members. I kind of rest on what other people believe I am doing."
Not to be outdone, Carran highlighted her own list of awards including volunteer of the year from the Northern Kentucky Area Development District, Outstanding Woman of the Year in Northern Kentucky, and an honor from the Kentucky Society of Architects for her efforts at establishing quality of space and livable communities. "That was a very proud moment for me," said Carran.
In Closing
The debate ended with each candidate's closing statement. "I have served Covington for six years, representing the people," Carran said. "I've represented them when we made decisions, when it came to citizen engagement. I do more than just the bare city needs. I represent the city at OKI (Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana regional council of governments), at NKAPC (NKY Area Planning Commission), the Housing Consortium. My time is filled from day to night representing the city and since I've been on commission I believe I've done a lot to push out old politics and bring in new politics to the way the city is operating as a business. People say, 'she's a tree-hugger that only cares about the environment', but I also have a background in finance. I worked for Graddison, and made sure the books jived at the end of the day. There would be times I would find mistakes that our auditors couldn't find. I'm good with figures, reading contracts, getting the facts before I make a decision and as far as being a leader of Covington in a mayor's role, I will be respectful and inclusive of my fellow commissioners, staff, and our residents."
"C+V=G. It's been the theme. You all thought it means courage plus vision equals growth but it really means, 'Casper's Very Good," Casper joked. "I have a vision. I see us working collaboratively, both internally and externally to change the face of Covington, I met with all the commission candidates one on one as well as the school board candidates to allow for smooth transition from this administration to the next. Firther, we need to enhance collaboration between all city departments and communication to our citizens while being as cost-effective as possible. I've met one on one with leaders from Taylor Mill, Newport, Ludlow, the County, the Sheriff, the schools, and the mayor of Cincinnati to discuss how we can work together to attract businesses to our region and develop cost savings." Casper added that he has been endorsed by Kenton County Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus, Commonwealth's Attorney Rob Sanders, the Northern Kentucky Association of Realtors, and the Fraternal Order of Police. "Given the tough negotiations we had for two years, the fact that they still respected me with their endorsement is very gratifying." Casper also said that he was endorsed by former Covington Mayor Denny Bowman who resigned last year.