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At Covington Mayoral Forum, Differing Views of Current State of the City

At a forum organized by supporters of challenger Joe Meyer featuring a panel of other supporters of the longtime Frankfort political figure, the stage was set for this year's Covington mayor's race to take a more hostile turn.

While there are four candidates on the ballot, it is presumed by most observers that Meyer and incumbent Mayor Sherry Carran will advance to general election in November. Other challengers, wine salesman Alfonse Mele and pizza delivery driver Matthew Winkler, offered their own ideas for the city, but lack the campaign apparatus of the other more experienced politicians Carran and Meyer.

In fact, according to the latest figures reported to the state and counting contribrutions from the candidate, Meyer has raised an astounding $42,000 for his campaign already, nearly three times Carran's coffers - most of which has been filled from her own pockets. But where Meyer's campaign money came from may be what prompted an antagonistic response from the incumbent. "My biggest worry is that we've come so far in recent years and I have a very strong worry that we're going to go back to old politics," Carran said in her closing remarks at the Madison Avenue Christian Church. "It is not in the best interests of the city and it will be self-serving interests that serve the city."

Meyer has the public support of former mayors like Denny Bowman and commissioners Jerry Bamberger and Steve Megerle, and has contributions from former Commissioner Alex Edmondson and former Kenton County Judge/Executive Steve Arlinghaus, politicians with whom Carran has sparred in the past, and who represent, in her eyes, "the old politics". Meyer has also benefitted heavily from the Home Builders of Northern Kentucky, as an organization and as individuals. The HBA has been critical of the city as difficult to conduct business with while Carran and City Manager Larry Klein have criticized the HBA's emphasis on allocating Sanitation District 1 funds towards subrurban development rather than the infrastructure needs in the city.

The MACC debate, organized in part by political strategist and Meyer supporter Kathy Groob, also featured a panel made up of Carran critics like Bennie Doggett of the Eastside neighborhood and attorney Michael Plummer, and also longtime Kenton County Democratic Party chair Col Owens. 

Moderator Judy Clabes, publisher of the Northern Kentucky Tribune, stated at the beginning that she had nothing to do with the writing of the questions, but some in the crowd questioned whether the event was stacked against the current mayor. 

The questions turned out to be rather soft all around, but still offered the candidates the opportunity to express their vision for the city and their assessment of where things stand now.

Meyer railed against the city's heavy focus on the central business district's ongoing resurgence while the areas "south of 12th Street" feel ignored, he said. Meyer said he's been asked on multiple occasions by some residents about how their portions of the city could be de-annexed. He denounced the plan to charge a fee to use the city's swimming pools and the concentration of social services and low-income housing in the city. "The social services burden is getting greater than we can bear," Meyer said, adding that he would oppose the permanent placement of a syringe access/needle exchange program in any of the city's neighborhoods. 

Carran touted her work as a member of the Northern Kentucky heroin response team which, she argues, has helped erase the stigma associated with the drug so that a more strategic focus can be placed on recovery and treatment. Traffickers now face stiffer penalties thanks to state law adopted in 2015, she said. "The city has to be part of the solution," the mayor said. 

The MACC debate was characterized as one that would focus on social justice issues and panelists offered soft questions about homelessness and education.

"We have a lot of agencies that work in a silo. There is no coherent plan," Meyer said of the organizations that serve homeless people in Covington. "We need a coordinated planning effort." He cited a program in Lexington that has reduced chronic homelessness in Lexington and said that he would implement a task force to examine what the city's responsibilities are in the social services arena. 

Carran said that low income housing opportunities are improving in the city thanks to collaborations with the Housing Authority of Covington. She also reiterated her support for the historic restoration of a dozen properties in Mainstrasse Village that would serve as low income housing as part of a development by the Welcome House and the Model Group - a project opposed by some in the neighborhood because of a deed restriction that would keep the properties as low-income for 30 years. 

As for education, Meyer said that Gateway Community & Technical College is part of improving Covington's workforce but criticized the school for not offering advanced manufacturing programs in the inner city where a massive new urban campus is being developed. Manufacturing programs are offered at a state-of-the-art facility in Boone County where, Meyer said, "It's not accessible to our students." He also accused the city of pointing fingers at the struggling independent school district which consistently ranks near the bottom in Kentucky. "We must be a much more vigorous partner," Meyer said. 

What would he do? Create a mayor's office of early childhood, reestablish recreational programs, and boost extracurricular activities. 

"I take offense," Carran shot back. "The city has an excellent relationship with the school district. Many of our kids are embarrassed to say they are from Covington schools because there are so many people talking down on the schools." She noted that Glenn O. Swing Elementary has become a success story, ranking in the top percentile statewide as the top performing primary school in the county. 

Mele offered up some fun lines - "Every town should have senior wine representative as a mayor" - and confessed that he had not voted since 1992 when he cast a ballot for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot. His primary concerns were related to riverfront redevelopment. He's an avid kayaker and believes Covington is way behind surrounding communities in terms of taking advantage of its natural possibilities. 

Carran pointed out that the city is poised to embark on the first phase of a multi-million redevelopment of the riverfront later this year.

Winkler, though green to politics, served two tours of duty with the Marines in Afghanistan. In the military he formed an appreciation for inclusive leadership, something he said he would bring to City Hall. He argued that the city could tackle its problems one step at a time instead of trying too many things at once.

But with Meyer and Carran expected to advance to November, the focus of the audience was primarily on them. 

"We are doing really good things because we're working together," Carran said. "We don't have big egos at the city. We have amazing employees."

Meyer said that the mayor sets the tone for the city and that there is perception that there is not open discussion about issues - something that he would change. "I want Covington to be a vibrant urban environment, true to its roots," he said. "People in this city view south of 12th Street far different than north of 12th." He accused the city's leadership of failing to address "basic issues" like housing and education.

Keeping with the social justice theme, all the candidates agreed that Covington is a diverse and welcoming place. Meyer said that the city has been a beacon for the LGBT community, but said that there should be more African-Americans in leadership positions and that the Latino community's entrepreneurial spirit could be better supported. 

"We are known for being welcoming and inclusive," Carran said. She referenced the Awesome Collective of Covington, the group of professionals who sought to bolster community pride in unique and engaging ways. "That was about creating positivity and I feel right now like there is a negative undercurrent hurting us."

The primary on May 17 will eliminate two candidates from the field.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: (left to right) Carran, Mele, Meyer, and Winkler (RCN)