By Jim Gaines
A new mayor and four new city commissioners for Bowling Green will take their oaths of office on New Year’s Eve.
At 10 a.m. at the Capitol Arts Center, they will promise to serve the city and swear they haven’t fought any duels. Athena Cage will sing the national anthem, and the crowd will adjourn to a reception in the Capitol lobby.
But after the ceremony, the work of governing will begin.
To prepare for their new jobs, the group elected Nov. 2 has been meeting regularly with city staff from different departments. Only one session remains, a meeting with the Housing and Community Development and legal departments, Mayor-elect Elaine Walker said.
“I think you’re going to find that this is a new City Commission that is going to ask a lot of questions, that will discuss things openly, that will make their views known,” she said. “But by the same token, once a decision has been made, then everyone will get behind that decision, whether it’s to vote it up or vote it down.”
New commissioners are prepared to table proposals if they don’t feel well-informed enough to make a quick decision, said Walker, co-owner of Peridot Pictures.
And knotty problems – as well as personal agendas – are sure to surface at commission meetings, probably sooner rather than later.
“I think the biggest thing that we’re going to be addressing is the whole issue of eminent domain,” Walker said. “A lot of what is in the pipeline appears to be dependent on the use of eminent domain.”
She said that incoming commissioners are unlikely to support wide use of condemnation – as is she.
“I have serious concerns about using eminent domain to take from one private property owner and to turn it over to another,” Walker said.
A major part of city commissioners’ new duties will involve the reinstitution of regular working sessions, discussions of upcoming tough issues at 4 p.m. on the day of regular commission meetings, she said.
“We want to hear about them, even a month before,” Walker said. “That’s kind of our way of making sure that we are fully up to speed, so that we can ask questions and go and do our own research before we have to make a decision.”
Use of the city’s condemnation power is one good example of the need for advance warning and extensive deliberation, she said.
“That’s the kind of thing that we do not want brought to us at a meeting, and have to make a decision on,” Walker said.
At the new commission’s first or second meeting, Brian “Slim” Nash plans to sponsor a municipal order reaffirming that the Downtown Redevelopment Authority is the designated spearhead of Bowling Green’s urban revitalization efforts, he said.
“It appears that the city through the Housing and Community Development office, is trying to usurp the authority that they originally gave to the DRA,” said Nash, a case specialist in Warren County Family Court. “Two things bother me about it. One is that the DRA, through all their meetings and all their volunteers, developed this long-term plan that the city signed off on. And they should be given an opportunity to see that plan through.
“The second thing that bothers me is, it’s a respect factor. The DRA was formed with the city’s blessing; they went out and recruited all kinds of citizens ... they’ve carried the ball an awfully long way. And now the city’s turned around and said, ‘We’re going to take over, we’re going to cut you out of the loop,’ and I think that’s a bad way to treat citizens who volunteer their time to make their community better.”
Nash has also been troubled by reports from some city employees about a policy forbidding staff members from approaching elected officials individually and informally with problems, whether about their jobs or conditions in their neighborhoods.
He heard about the supposed policy when he made a point of talking with city employees during his campaign, and asked city department heads about it.
Some told him that there is no such policy, while others said it’s an unwritten suggestion, Nash said. But lower-level employees have kept telling him that it exists and is in force.
So Nash plans to “make sure that something is on the books” explicitly allowing city employees to speak to elected officials about their concerns, he said.
“It should make no difference who they do or don’t work for,” Nash said. “I want to make sure that everybody has equal access.”
New commissioners are still getting a feel for city operations through their seminars with staff, said Mark Alcott, an attorney.
“We’re still in a large learning curve at this point,” he said.
Alcott plans to push soon for one item mentioned in his campaign: term limits for city commissioners.
“I’ve done quite a bit of work on that already,” he said.
He proposes a maximum of three two-year terms for commissioners.
“My preference in government, whether local or national, is for citizen legislatures rather than career politicians,” Alcott said. “I just feel like it gives more people the opportunity to serve, especially on the local level.”
Only one Kentucky city – Lexington – has term limits for its legislative body, restricting commissioners to four two-year terms, he said.
Bowling Green mayors are limited to three four-year terms, according to legal research posted on www.termlimits.org, where Alcott said he got his information.
Alcott would like for commissioners to pass a resolution that would lead to a yes-or-no vote from the citizenry as a whole in the next city-wide elections, he said.
Delane Simpson said that he, too, would favor a term limits initiative soon after commissioners take office.
“I just think that after you’ve been there so long, you need to give somebody else an opportunity to learn and contribute to the city,” he said.
Simpson, a Realtor, said that among prominent upcoming decisions will probably be a new evaluation of LifeSkills’ plan to move to a downtown site with city assistance.
The planned construction of a new community center for the city Parks & Recreation Department across the street from its current site should be monitored closely, and continued development of the Kentucky TriModal Transpark and local tourism initiatives should be encouraged consistently, he said.
Brian Strow could not be reached for comment, but during the campaign he said that rolling back the 2003 city occupational tax hike – which went from 1.5 to 2 percent – was his main issue.
At campaign events, the Western Kentucky University economics professor said that he planned to keep a close eye on city finances. He generally opposed the use of eminent domain for redevelopment projects, disagreed with LifeSkills’ choice of a site immediately adjacent to Circus Square, and said that funding police and firefighters’ needs should top the city’s financial priorities.
City Manager Chuck Coates is on vacation for the holidays, leaving Chief Financial Officer Davis Cooper as acting city manager. Cooper has only overseen his own department’s meetings with incoming officials, at which he gave an overview of finances rather than bringing up major issues, he said.
Cooper expects that downtown redevelopment projects and strategies will probably be high on the agendas commissioners will soon face.
“What direction the city is going to be taking, I’ve got a feeling that’s an item they’ll be addressing pretty quickly,” he said.
Bowling Green Daily News: www.bgdailynews.com