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Covington Leaders Hope to Improve Working Relationship

"We each pledge our support for this social contract and commit ourselves to uphold it in our daily lives."

That is the final line of the social contract between the new Covington City Commission, dated January 1, 2013. It was signed as an attempt to maintain the unusually collaborative working relationship established at City Hall under former Mayor Chuck Scheper.

Among the directives of the social contract is to communicate openly, to listen, to provide feedback, and to foster a fun, friendly, and professional atmosphere.

"We have to strive for that," Mayor Sherry Carran, who initiated the new social contract, told The River City News. "If we don't strive for it, we're hurting. I think when we signed it we knew it was never going to be perfect but you have to keep striving for it. I know for myself and my belief is for the others, that that social contract is still important and maybe we need to pull it out more often and look at it so it registers a little more."

There was little evidence of unanimous adherence to the social contract at the March 12 city commission meeting.

Disagreements over whom should be appointed to the Housing Authority of Covington board of commissioners, the hiring of a municipal specialist to supervise a soon-to-be hired crew of maintenance workers, and staffing levels at the fire department contributed to the tension that dominated a three-and-a-half hour long session.

Issues that had been quietly developing behind the scenes between members of the new administration were presented for the public to see, a far cry from what is called for in the social contract and a complete 180-degree turn from the usually calm meetings presided over by Scheper.

City Commissioner Michelle Williams, elected in November to her first term, was particularly antagonistic toward Carran, serving her first term as mayor after six years as a commissioner as well as City Manager Larry Klein. Williams contends, however, that she is not angry.

"I think just certain issues have me a little more pumped up than others," she told The River City News. "I might be putting my passion into certain things and I'm not winning. I'm hoping we go beyond it. I thought we would've moved on before now. I think Sherry and I have our chance to fix things. We are slowly being casual to each other, so that's a start."

Firefighter staffing issue returns to forefront

Williams is now championing a cause that created great contention between the previous city commission and the firefighters union, Local 38. Daily staffing levels within the Covington Fire Department were decreased from thirty to twenty-seven and a pumper at the department's headquarters was taken out of service, all part of a purported effort to save the city from financial collapse.

Williams, the firefighters union, and many citizens believe that decision has placed residents at risk, particularly after a woman was killed in a fire a day before the March 12 meeting. 

"If we just listen to the residents of Covington on this one, it will benefit the city," Williams said. "That's why I'm pushing hard for it. Now why other people are pushing in the opposite direction, the only answer I get is finances, the money issue. If you take money out of the issue what else would stop them from giving (the fire department) what it needs? I haven't been able to get an answer. It's all about money."

She intends to continue her efforts to hire more firefighters, putting the call out on her Twitter page. "Support Covington Firefighters! Help end the Brownout of Pumper 1. Voice your opinion on Tuesday at City Hall @ 6:00pm. #GoCovington," she tweeted. 

Plans to place firefighter staffing levels back to thirty per day are not likely any time soon, according to the mayor.

"I don't see that happening Tuesday night," Carran said. "It may come up, I'm sure it's going to come up, but I don't see that happening Tuesday night." There is one item on the agenda in which the commissioners will likely approve an agreement with Local 38 for promotions and staffing. No further details were offered.

Carran said the city solicitor, Frank Warnock, who has been in and continues to be in multiple legal proceedings with the union, believes it is a good agreement. "Hopefully we can move forward on that but I don't see any decision being made about hiring any additional people at this time<" the mayor said. "That's not to say it's not going to happen in the future. I think we are all hoping as the economy gets better, as our revenue gets better, we can go back and take a close look at the changes we made to make up that budget deficit. Any business would do that. If a business had to make changes they would go back and review how things are working and that's what we're hoping to do."

Williams thinks that replenishing the fire department's staffing levels would eliminate all the legal issues between Local 38 and the City, including a claim by the union filed before the Kentucky Labor Cabinet. "I think if we just gave them the thirty, it would end all of the grievances. It's as easy as that," she said.

"The City of Covington budgeted for 119 firefighters. It's already in the budget and we have 109, so why we can't afford it when we already put it in the budget - that was the mayor's same reason for hiring a municipal specialist. When I use the same excuse to hire the firefighters, they say we don't have money, so I can't win."

Moving forward after rough start

City leaders are hoping that the awkward and tense meeting two weeks ago does not inspire an encore presentation Tuesday when they meet again, and when multiple issues from the last meeting return to the agenda.

"I was disappointed and sometimes maybe disappointed in myself," Carran said. "I really was sort of taken aback. I knew the meeting was going to be rough but I was surprised how everything played out. I think in some areas it was personal. That's the difficulty. You try to be strong and you try to keep politics out of things and run a professional type of meeting. You should keep personalities out of it and that sometimes gets difficult for us."

Williams also hopes for more productive meetings moving forward. "I think that as long as we can respect each other's position that all of that can be kept behind closed doors," she said. "I don't think you're going to get any big explosion or anything at these meetings, not from me. I would see it coming from residents."

City Commissioner Chuck Eilerman, also in his first term, is hopeful moving forward, too. "I think the last meeting was unfortunate in some of the ways it was handled and the time it went, but we're going to run meetings more tightly going forward," Eilerman said. "And I think we have a great team of people. We certainly have a lot of talent here and we're determined to find ways to work together more cooperatively and more constructively."
 
"We still have a tremendous number of positive things going on," he continued.
 
City Commissioner Steve Frank, in his second term, sees a mixed bag as the commission moves forward. He was traveling over the weekend but wrote to The River City News, "What I would say is that my principal objective is to carry on the legacy of former Mayor Chuck Scheper. The difficulty with that in the new commission is because we are beginning to realize the savings, many pressures are building to spend money before have built up adequate reserves. Second, people still seem to not understand the difference between an operating budget, which has got annually recurring costs such as salaries and capital expenses such as one-time road repairs. Because previous commissions didn't budget intelligently we ran up a $30 million maintenance deficit in our infrastructure. My job, as I see it, is to block foolish spending from wherever it is proposed. Last point, there appears that this commission is not as unified in a central mission and vision as the last one. That may change, but right now it looks like there is unity on a good amount of the big things but serious division on others such as in personnel and hiring practices."
 
City Commissioner Mildred Rains did not return a call seeking comment.
 
Better communication needed
 
Many of the issues that turned into contentious exchanges at the last meeting were discussed extensively in private before coming to the public stage, the mayor said. On the issues of her recommendations for the Housing Authority board and the municipal specialist hire, Mayor Carran said she put a lot of thought into it and agreed to compromise.
 
"I don't do it on a whim, I do it with a lot of thought and research and the decisions that were made that night, I really did try," Carran said. "I listened and made adjustments to my initial recommendations."
 
Williams disagrees. "There is very little compromise, that's what I found out," she said of her short time in city government. "I thought that when you disagree and you sit at the table, at some point people compromise. I don't see that. I'm just going to say there hasn't been much communication going on."
 
"I think everything will smooth out just fine," Williams continued. "Everyone will see their place and who they'll be with. It's 3-2 on a lot of issues and I made points that maybe I have an issue with one item out of twenty-five but that one item for them I should never have an issue with. It's like, are you kidding me? You should never question anything on this agenda, just vote aye on everything on this agenda?"
 
"My concern is that if we could all be working together, and I'm not saying agreeing all the time, we could really accomplish a lot," the mayor said.
 
Each meeting at City Hall begins with a prayer crafted by Carran during her time as a commissioner. That moment may take on more significance going forward. Citing part of the opening prayer, Carran said, "We need to respect our positions of trust. People have trust in us and part of that is working together so if you pay attention to the prayer that should bring to mind to set that we're there for the city overall, not just for ourselves or a small group of people."
 
"Hopefully we all learn from that and my biggest concern is that I don't want to hurt the city's image. Right now the city has a pretty good image with most people. Overall I think our image has improved a lot over the past year with Mayor Scheper and I know it was really important to me that we stayed on board with that and so I guess I was disappointed that we veered off track. I'm hoping we can get back again but it's difficult working on issues that people feel passionately about. I have a passion for certain things, others may have passions for different things and I think if we can find a way to say, hey, we're not that far off, let's try to work together on things we can agree to."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Covington City Commission, from left to right, Michelle Willaims, Steve Frank, Mayor Sherry Carran, Chuck Eilerman, and Mildred Rains/RCN file
 
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