Park Hills Council Race Includes Campaign Against Human Rights Ordinance
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo of the incorrect Park Hills city building. It has been updated with an appropriate image. RCN regrets the error.
In the race for Park Hills city council, one issue has risen above others to cause the most controversy: a proposed human rights ordinance that would extend legal protections to LGBT residents.
A new website, Park Hills Life, takes aim at current Mayor Matt Mattone and councilman Jason Reser over their support of the proposal. Mattone is not seeking reelection as mayor, and is instead looking for a seat on council. Reser is running for reelection.
Current councilwoman Kathy Zembrodt is running unopposed for mayor.
The site, owned by resident Bob Amott, who also paid for campaign fliers with former councilman Mark Cooper, says that the proposed human rights ordinance is "harmful, dangerous, and divisive."
Park Hills has considered the ordinance or discussed it multiple times over the past year, but has taken no action on it. If adopted, the city would become the eleventh such city in Kentucky to approve what is also known as a "fairness ordinance," joining Covington in Northern Kentucky.
"The genesis of this ordinance derives from outside activist groups with good intentions, but there are many dangers to both our city, businesses, and residents," Park Hills Life notes. The site claims that the ordinance would give too much power to a board of appointed individuals, and that those accused of violating the ordinance could face "huge legal fees and public intimidation even if not guilty of any crime."
Mattone called Amott's position an attempt at an "October surprise", when opposing campaigns launch attacks late in the election cycle, and said that he still supports exploring a human rights ordinance for Park Hills.
"Throughout this entire process, several residents have worked diligently to inform our citizens and businesses about what a Human Rights Commission is, and the benefits it could bring to our community," Mattone wrote in a Facebook post. "While there are many businesses and residents that expressed their support of equality for all people, there were many citizens who expressed their concerns that a LHRC might cause litigation to be filed against the City or that their religious rights would be violated by the formation of a LHRC.
"The fact remains, that despite the tremendous efforts from resident members of the advisory panel, there is no legislative support from council to advance any Local Human Rights Commission or Fairness legislation."
Mattone continued, "I am proud of what we’ve accomplished in Park Hills over the past four years, and I am very much looking forward to our bright future ahead."
Park Hills Life posted that it endorsed Zembrodt for mayor, and incumbents Pam Spoor and Steve Elkins, and challengers Wesley Deters, Joe Shields, and Kevin Theissen for city council.
Cooper, the former council member involved in paying for fliers against Mattone and Reser, butted heads publicly with the current mayor earlier this year when a bumper sticker promoting evolution was first interpreted by a gay resident, as anti-gay.
Following that, more discussion about a human rights ordinance was had.
So, where do the candidates for Park Hills city council stand on issues facing the city?
RCN's Patricia A. Scheyer talked with them.
Park Hills has had renewed interest in people wanting to serve on city council in the last few years. This year 10 will be on ballot, running for 6 seats.
Mayor Matt Mattone, who won his seat in 2014 in an upset write-in bid against former mayor Don Catchen, is not seeking re-election. Instead, Kathy Zembrodt is running unopposed for the mayor's job, and Mattone is seeking a spot on council.
He said that he would be able to better serve the community as a council member than as mayor.
"I am running for council because of my unbridled passion for our city," Mattone said. "I believe Park Hills is the finest bedroom community in all of Kenton County, and I want to continue the journey I began four years ago by inviting residents and business owners to get involved with shaping the vision of our city."
Mattone said that while he was mayor, more than fifty residents and business owners have volunteered to serve on standing committees and boards, many of them becoming involved in government for the first time.
Mattone's proudest accomplishment, he said, has been fostering a community of well-informed and engaged businesses and residents. He pointed to the success of the Park Hills Civic Association, and the city is full of optimism, civic engagement, and community pride.
Plan Park Hills: Amsterdam Valley is a prime example, Mattone said, of how residents, committee members, and the public came together to create vision for a blighted area that could become a community asset. One year after the forum, the city is working on an agreement with a developer and Sanitation District 1 to make it a reality.
Next up, the city should focus on developing a comprehensive plan, Mattone said. The city has needed to plan for a long time, particularly as the city deals with watching every penny, Mattone said. Public input would be crucial to developing such a plan, he said.
He and his wife, Dr. Stephanie Merhar, have lived in Park Hills since 2012 and have four children.
Councilwoman Pamela Spoor is seeking reelection. She grew up in Ft. Mitchell, and moved to Park Hills after marrying her husband, Richard, in 1978. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University and Chase College of Law. After practicing law, she now works for a company that specializes in municipal finance and tax exempt underwriting.
She and her husband have five children and five grandchildren, some of whom live in Park Hills, too.
Spoor first took office in 2011, and sought a seat on council because the city was facing financial distress and offered limited services. She said that she has worked hard to curb expenses, pay down debt, make financial information available to the public, increase savings, keep tax rates low, and to put money aside for capital projects.
In 2012, she worked to place a road tax issue on the ballot, and was successful. The road tax was reduced from $2.35 per $1,000 property valuation to $1.55. The last audit showed that Park Hills has reserves of more than $600,000, she said.
Moving forward, Spoor wants to make sure that the city retains its police and fire departments.
"I do not have a private agenda," Spoor said. "I want to serve our residents by making sure the city is fiscally healthy and efficiently operating, that it is meeting the needs for road maintenance, safety, green space, and preservation of Park Hills's unique character. I would like to see the city focus on paying down debt, on infrastructure maintenance, and on extending our gaslight-style street lights for safety."
Spoor also wants to create a passive park space for residents on the Notre Dame Academy side of Dixie Highway. She would like to incentivize the business district to promote growth.
"Park Hills has a natural and architectural beauty which is special and worthy of preservation and protection," Spoor said. "This requires vigilance, vision, and the financial health to make it happen."
Karl Oberjohn is seeking his second term on city council. He and his wife, Karen, have lived on Aberdeen Road in Park Hills for eighteen years. They met while Oberjohn was attending the University of Minnesota, attaining his master's degree in mechanical engineering.
Since being elected to council, Oberjohn has chaired the communications and infrastructure committees. He has overseen the relaunch of the city's website and newsletter, and worked to implement a new sound system so that residents watching council meetings at home could hear better.
He has also developed a method for maintaining and improving streets and sidewalks, he said.
Oberjohn said that he is proud of the current mayor and council for reaching an agreement with a developer of the former Gateway Community and Technical College site on Amsterdam Road. However, he said that the council could benefit from the addition of more new voices after Election Day.
If reelected, Oberjohn would like to increase civic engagement in the city.
"We can start by making our monthly meetings more informative for residents by presenting a clear, visual snapshot of the city's revenues, expenses, savings, and debt at every meeting," Oberjohn said. "I believe our citizens would be more engaged if they have an opportunity to serve on boards that function independently from the council, such as the Tree Board. I propose that the financial oversight, parks and recreation, historic preservation, and economic development committees of the council be relaunched as independent boards."
Jason Reser is also seeking his second term on council. He and his wife, Kellie Cochran Reser, have two sons.
Reser attended city officer training through the Kentucky League of Cities and is a member of the board at Kenton County Planning & Development Services (PDS). He is a member of cycling advocacy groups, and through that has interacted and been involved with regional government projects for years, he said.
Reser believes that the financial oversight committee cleaned up issues found in financial audits with regards to separations of duties in financial transactions.
Reser said that the new caucus meetings for city council are important for members to stay ahead of key issues, to be transparent, and to make time for citizen engagement. He also worked with PDS on a zoning project to make neighborhoods safer and more livable, he said. Reser also said that he has worked hard to update ordinances to preserve the identity of Park Hills.
A community-driven plan for Amsterdam Valley and gathering citizen input for Park Pointe are also highlights noted by Reser. He also said that he worked to stop the the city from taking out multi-million dollar loans to finish infrastructure issues.
But the city still faces financial difficulty, he said. The city needs more in reserves, he said. The eastern part of Dixie Highway is mostly ignored, he said, while the city invests in the northwest side. In the meantime, he has pushed for grants to help build a sidewalk on St. Joseph Lane to help people who have nowhere to walk.
"All people deserve respect in Park Hills," Reser said. "Rental tenants are citizens just as much as homeowners."
Steve Elkins has lived in Park Hills for 17 years. He has been married for 31 years and has six children and one grandson.
He has served on city council in 2009 and 2010, and again from 2013 to present. Elkins said that he is a strong advocate for the financial revival in the city.
He said that he has been a one-man communications and personnel committee and believes that he has provided a consistent, reasonable, respectful, and logical voice for Park Hills residents.
"I believe we are headed in the right direction and cannot allow distractions to sway the course," Elkins said. "We need to remain focused on the basics."
Elkins said that he wants to continue to contribute to the positive direction the city is moving in and that he is a proponent of maintaining the police and fire departments in the city. He will be a strong advocate for taxpayer dollars, and will strive to maintain a stand against unnecessary tax increases, he said.
Wesley Deters grew up in Ft. Mitchell, but her mother, and her husband Mitch's mother, were both raised in Park Hills. Now the Deters are raising their three sons in Park Hills.
After graduating from Beechwood High School, Deters competed as an NCAA Division I athlete at the University of Kentucky and Penn State University.
Deters is seeking her first term on council, after attending several meetings and gaining an interest in infrastructure investments and small business development. She said that she would like to work with small business groups and incubators to begin recruiting more businesses to town.
Increasing and diversifying Park Hills's business offerings would generate more revenue and enhance the lifestyle of residents, she said.
"I am a very pleased Park Hills resident," Deters said. "Our great city offers small town charm and community with an amazing ease of metropolitan access. My hope is to begin paying down debt and to increase reserve funds. We need to continue the notion of preservation while steering the city toward its economic potential."
Deters said that she has a strong business acumen, leadership skills, and teamwork abilities to bring to council.
Joe Shields is running for a spot on council. He is a lifelong resident of Park Hills where he and his wife of 28 years, Jill, have four children.
He was a strategic communications consultant for major companies and organizations across the region, including state and local governments, political campaigns, universities, and infrastructure projects for thirty years. He was also a partner at Wordsworth Communications, a large public relations firm.
In 2017, Shields branched out to launch Room of Knowledge Consulting.
Now that his kids are grown and he is working for himself, Shields is running for council, something he had thought about doing for years.
"I want to be on council because I think it's important that all citizens take part in governing themselves and giving back to a community that has given so much to them," said Shields. "Having spent 30 years in and around governments and governing, I think my skill set will be useful as a member of council."
Shields said that he doesn't have an agenda or an ax to grind, but instead wants to focus on a city budget that pushes the city to live within its means.
He is in favor of big development projects like Park Pointe if they benefit the city and its residents. He also said that he wants to make sure that all residents feel welcome in the city.
Sarah Froelich moved to Park Hills with her husband, Matthew. She wants to serve on council to help the city face its challenges and to make the community better.
Froelich said that she sees a lack of shared vision in Park Hills, largely because of city council divisions. She wants the city government to work together better.
The city also faces serious financial challenges, she said. The city, she said, has more debt than ever, and it needs to be addressed through fiscal discipline and economic development.
She also wants to address issues on the east side of town, such as adding a sidewalk to St. Joseph Lane.
Froelich said that she wants to see the city be financially solvent as soon as possible, and to make sure that all residents of Park Hills feel that they are part of the community.
Additionally, Froelich is in favor of developing a smart plan for commercial development along Dixie Highway.
Kevin Theissen is a Kenton County native and attended Holy Cross High School and Northern Kentucky University. He met his wife at Fidelity Investments, and they moved to Park Hills seven years ago. Their two daughters attend St. Agnes School in Ft. Wright, and he said his whole family loves Park Hills.
Theissen has regularly attended council meetings for the past two years, and now wants to serve in an official capacity.
"I believe we have the opportunity to be more focused on my key areas, preserving the unique charm of the city, preserving our finances, protecting our citizens by keeping our fire and police here in Park Hills, and by partnering with each other and local businesses in a respectful manner," Theissen said. "I want to Preserve, Protect and Partner."
Theissen said that there is too much division in the city, and that people should listen to and be respectful of each other. He promises to do that.
He has more than two decades of leadership and management experience with three different financial services companies, all Fortune 300 companies.
He said that his knowledge of finance and investments, as well as his leadership and management experience, give him the necessary business acumen to serve successfully on council.
Theissen said that he is committed to managing the budget, keeping the charm of the city, ensuring that police and fire are supported, and collaborating with the business community.
Monty O'Hara has served on council for a total of fourteen years, under four mayors.
He is not currently on council, but is looking to return.
O'Hara earned a bachelor's degree from Morehead State University and a master's degree from Western Michigan University. He and his wife, Ann, have four daughters that they raised in park Hills.
They have lived in the city for 26 years.
O'Hara said that his experience will aid him in addressing city issues.
He said that he would like to see staffing and operations in the city remain the same, and is not a fan of outsourcing tasks that can be accomplished internally.
O'Hara said that the recent fliers against the proposed human rights ordinance and candidates are disappointing to him, and were designed to instill fear and to encourage people to vote for a special slate of candidates.
"As a councilman I have and always will vote based on what I feel best suits the residents," said O'Hara. "I will always listen and work with others even if we disagree. City council elections are designed to be non-partisan for a reason. Groups tend to be closed minded and against any type of change, and will discourage any new ideas."
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer and Michael Monks