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In Covington Mayor's Race, Candidates Start Punching

It was the winter of 2014 and Covington City Hall was still tense, six months removed from the shocking revelation that former finance director Bob Due had embezzled what ended up being nearly $800,000 from the city coffers. The city's response was to move quickly in pursuing the money's return and creating a task force to make sure such a theft never happened again.

In the thick of it all was City Manager Larry Klein, who had already spent much of 2013 prior to the Due revelation battling with then-city commissioners Michelle Williams and Mildred Rains. They wanted him fired.

But to fire the city manager in Covington, the city commission must produce at least three votes - and Mayor Sherry Carran and Commissioner Chuck Eilerman stood by Klein, warmly. Commissioner Steve Frank was also supportive, but less so.

Back then, he openly enjoyed being a swing vote. Sometimes he'd side with Eilerman and Carran, sometimes with Rains and Williams. There were frequent 3-2 votes.

The issue of firing Klein, though, never came up for a vote.

But there were back-channel discussion involving Steve Frank to find an interim city manager. He found Joe Meyer, the former secretary of education and workforce development in Frankfort who had retired the previous year. In February of 2014, those discussions were made public in a story by The River City News - and on Thursday, the issue was brought up again as part of a mayoral debate.

The plan to oust Klein and replace him with Meyer fizzled; at a subsequent city commission meeting, the city commission chamber was packed with neighborhood activists showing their support for Klein. Williams and Rains lost their reelection bids that year. 

In the 2016 election, many of those players are back in the game. Williams wants her old seat back, Frank isn't running again but still lobs social media bombs at Carran, and Meyer now wants Carran's job. The two mayoral candidates appeared on stage together Thursday at an event hosted by the Covington Business Council, the Latonia Business Association, and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Sure, there were obvious topics: the Brent Spence Bridge, what to do when the IRS jobs leave in 2019, and, for this audience at the Madison Event Center, whether there is support for a so-called business improvement district in the downtown corridor.

But the issue of management style is where the old story from 2014 was revisited, bringing to the forefront the most apparent difference in the two campaigns' messages: Carran's "stay the course" and Meyer's "change".

"The mayor and the board of commissioners have to work together and we have a nonpartisan form of goverment and historically, we have never run on a slate," Meyer said in response to a question about which city commission candidates he'd support. "I believe it's my job and opportunity to work with whoever gets elected. So I'm for all of them. They all represent a different constituency and they all bring different strengths.

"Instead of picking sides before the game begins, we wait for the voters to have their say," he continued. "It would be a big difference from the current commission."

Meyer said that there is a city commissioner that claims Carran hasn't spoken to him in three years. 

"It's Commissioner Steve Frank," the mayor replied, so that the audience was clear to whom Meyer was referring. "He has routinely gone after me on social media and on The Bill Cunningham Show so what I have chosen to do is, instead of being pulled into that social media and that discussion, I've stayed quiet. I've tried to take the higher ground."

Just before the primary election in May, Frank, a staunch and outspoken supporter of Meyer and Michelle Williams in this election, took to Facebook to call Mayor Carran a "bag lady". "He felt like he was the power vote (in 2013-14) and working with Commissioners Williams and Rains they tried to do away with Larry Klein and Joe was a part of that discussion because Joe was to be city manager if they got rid of Larry."

The opponents also worked to convince the audience that the other is not responsible. Meyer cited the Due scandal, a theft that spanned 12 years from 2001 to 2013, and the shocking blow announced last month that the IRS would be closing its local processing center. "You have a clear choice in this election. You can tell that right here," Meyer said. "The current administration right there started with a theft of $800,000 from the treasury and it's ending with the loss of 1,800 jobs at the IRS center." 

Carran cited an audit of the Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development, arguing that it was unfavorable to Meyer, who retired from his position in 2013. The River City News is reviewing the audit documents.

"Joe states he wants to have a city government where people want to work, that is reliable and trusted, and where it's respected, transparent, with an eased regulatory burden," Carran said. "Those are words he expected people not to question. You will find that most of these things are already here and it gives the impression that it's not.

"The city's reputation is the best it has ever been and it's why businesses want to be part of the positive energy. People thrive on creating a negative image."

Carran said that Meyer and his supporters "began to create fear" by opposing the Welcome House's renovation project for low-income families in Mainstrasse Village. She also said that Meyer spread fear in his opposition to the Brent Spence Bridge project; he is the head of NKY United, a group formed to oppose tolls to finance the estimated $2.7 billion project.

Carran supports the bridge project, and has gone on record as being open to using tolls to finance the project.

"I'm pro-bridge," Carran said, "and a scare tactic is that some say the toll cost is going to be five to eight dollars. NKY United, they have a picture of a toll booth. There's not gonna be a toll booth. We have been told by the state and by (the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments) that the toll will probably be under two dollars, and I think that's reasonable.

"The importance of the bridge is not just for economic development and quality of life for our residents and businesses. It's our police and fire that respond every time they put their lives in danger."

Meyer used a history lesson involving former Governor and Covington native William Goebel, who led opposition to tolls in the late 19th century. "Tolls destroyed regionalism," he said. "Tolls don't create regionalism. They destroy it. Should a small group of people pay for what is a national priority?" Meyer said the toll would disproportionately impact Northern Kentuckians, and that because the actual construction of a new bridge is roughly only $700 million of the entire project's cost, the tolls paid by Kentuckians would also finance miles of highway improvements on the Ohio side.

The two also differed strongly on regionalism issues related to sanitation. Meyer, who said he helped write the legislation that created Sanitation District 1 while he was a state senator, said that regional efforts have to produce the quality of services needed and wanted by the communities. "What the vision (of SD1) was is not what's being fulfilled," he said. "Our property owners are getting nailed."

Flooding problems in Covington have been improved over the past few years, Carran said. New water retention efforts have alleviated the problems associated with flooding in the Peaselburg neighborhood, and Carran called SD1 "a partner". 

"If Joe gets on, SD1 will be an enemy again," she said.

At SD1 board meetings, there are often conflicting requests in Northern Kentucky - and desires from the urban cities like Covington are often at odds with the desire of suburban developers. Many local developers are backing Meyer's campaign.

Meyer said that his knowledge of the utility would be good for Covington.

"I know why it's there and how it got there and I am working with suburban mayors to make sure the special district is meeting the needs of our people," he said.

Carran and Meyer will appear together on WKRC's Newsmakers on Sunday morning, and then again at the Life Learning Center for a forum on Monday, and finally at 9th Street Baptist Church on October 27.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher