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Covington Leaders Attend Course on Government & Civility With 2 Notable Absences

"There's been some discussion about the city manager form of government and we thought it would be best to call (the Kentucky League of Cities) to just give us a refresher course," said Covington Mayor Sherry Carran before Wednesday's class began.

The special meeting was more than a refresher course, though, as the current city administration has experienced multiple fractious moments in public and private. It has been argued by some on the city commission that others on that same commission are not fully aware of how Covington's government is designed to operate.

But if the special course on Wednesday was designed to increase unity and civility among the five-member city commission, the highest score it could have achieved is 60%, an F in most educational institutions because only three bothered to show up. Mayor Carran was joined by City Commissioners Chuck Eilerman and Steve Frank as well as City Manager Larry Klein, other city administrators, and civic leaders. City Commissioners Mildred Rains and Michelle Williams did not attend.

Former Covington Assistant City Manager Robin Cooper, now with KLC where he serves a schief member services officer, was joined by colleagues JD CHaney, KLC's chief governmental affairs officer, and Tad Long, KLC's community development advisor.

"There's nothing wrong with having a different view, but at the end of the day, you have to have a vote and majority rules," Cooper said, starting with the basics.

In fact, most of the discussion did not move beyond the basics because the city manager form of government in Kentucky is laid out quite plainly in state statutes.

Covington is one of nineteen cities in the Commonwealth to operate under a city manager-city commission form of government where the city manager operates as CEO of the operation and the elected officials serve as a sort of board of directors. Each member of the board, including the mayor, is only as powerful as its one vote. Outside of ceremonial and meeting duties given to the mayor, no individual member of the board has any exclusive powers outside the legislative process. Individual commissioners cannot order employees to act, cannot hire or fire, and cannot monopolize the time of department heads through excessive requests for information, the KLC representatives argued.

"Personal attacks and partisan politics should be resigned to national politics," Cooper said. "You're being judged by the citizens of the community. You have to be conscious of that and you have to look at that as a responsibility."

Several members of the community were present to vent their frustration at the seeming dysfunction of the current city commission which came into office in January, following a city government led by former Mayor Chuck Scheper and that included Carran and Frank in a group that prided itself with the moniker, "the unified commission". Most legislation passed throughout 2012 was done so with a vote of 5-0.

Since January, however, public meetings have been contentious and several high-profile votes have been 3-2, usually with Rains and Williams in the minority.

"(In a city manager form of government) collaboration is key," Chaney said. "It's essential in order for the city to progress. Every city goes through a phase when dysfunction ensues, that grinds progress to a halt because of personalities."

"I never thought I'd be teaching a city manager government refresher course in the City of Covington," Chaney continued. "This is a wonderful community."

And perhaps after being spoiled by the good natured "unified commission", civic leaders are frustrated with the tenor of meetings.

Several questions from the public focused on what citizens can do to increase civility and efficiency from its governing body. The short answer was nothing outside of a ceremonial unofficial vote of no confidence, and the long answer was to wait for Election Day.

Philanthropist Oakley Farris asked what he called a hypothetical question. "How can a city manager handle two obstinate city commissioners?" Farris recognized a short pause in the proceedings. "Take your time," he said to laughter.

Chaney responded, "If I were a city a city manager and had to sit where two commissioners were consistently disruptive, then I would go to the board and ask how they want to handle it."

"You may have to ride out a rough year or two but the ultimate remedy may be at the ballot box," Chaney continued. "You may be a 3-2 city all the time."

"We don't want to wait two years," Farris shot back. "How can this be resolved?"

"The art of democracy is about the art of compromise," said KLC's Long. "So, you have to be reasonable and sit down and figure that out. Otherwise, it's up to the voters."

Long sent a letter to the Covington City Commission explaining the importance of that comment one month ago, it was revealed Wednesday.

Two issues that are often highlighted in the city commission's perceived dysfunction were explored Wednesday and that is where one new piece of information was learned by the city's governing body: a mayor has the ability to "second" a motion from the dais. 

Back in March, one of the first uncomfortable moments of the current administration unfolded during the appointment of a new member to the Housing Authority of Covington. Mayor Carran's original nominee was shot down behind the scenes and Commissioner Williams's suggestion was not brought to the floor. Jen Allen, a sort of compromise candidate, was on the agenda to be approved for the appointment. (SEE: Backroom disagreements come to forefront in fight over HAC appointment)

When the issue came up during the meeting, an argument ensued and when a motion was made to appoint Allen, no one offered a second. Mayor Carran could have offered the second, the KLC explained Wednesday. Allen was appointed 2-1 with Carran and Eilerman in support, Williams dissenting, and Frank & Rains abstaining.

Another issue that displayed the fractured nature of the current commission involved a surprise resolution proposed by Williams that would put the city on record opposing any rate increase by Sanitation District 1. KLC explained that Williams was within her legal rights to present a resolution that was not previously placed on the agenda as long as it was in writing and as long as the city clerk read it. (SEE: Fractured City Commission Falls Even Farther from Cohesion

The resolution passed 3-2 with Frank joining Williams and Rains in favor over the loud objections of Carran, Eilerman, and the city manager.

City Manager Klein reiterated his position Wednesday that that particular resolution was poorly written and not factual. "When the city acts on a piece of legislation that just falls out of the sky, that can reflect poorly on a city," he said. "I want to safeguard them from acting on bad info."

"I think there is a perception that this is what happens when someone feels like they are not being listened to," Commissioner Frank said of Williams.

Williams most recently got into an argument with the mayor, Commissioner Eilerman, and the city manager when she was refused entry into a staff meeting led by Klein. (SEE: Verbal confrontation erupts at City Hall between city commissioners, administrators)

KLC confirmed that the city manager has the right to meet privately with his staff without the presence of uninvited elected officials.

"There is nothing wrong with dissent in a political body, it's the American way," the city manager said Wednesday. "But what is important to the outside community is that they see stability and reliability and a reasonable majority in charge. When they see instability and unpredictability they go somewhere else with their deal."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Covington officials and residents meet with the Kentucky League of Cities at City Hall on Wednesday/RCN