Council questions Gray appointee about controversial e-mail

After questioning, Urban county Council forwards nominee's appointment

bfortune@herald-leader.comFebruary 2, 2011 

Lexington Commissioner of Social Services Beth Mills

Lexington Commissioner of Social Services Beth Mills did not wait to be asked by Urban County Council members about a controversial e-mail she forwarded to friends five years ago. She addressed the issue in opening remarks at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, calling it "a huge lapse in judgment."

"I understand why it was offensive, and I would like to offer my personal apologies to anyone in this room that was offended by it," she said.

Mills was appointed commissioner of social services by newly elected Mayor Jim Gray, but must win the council's approval to keep the job.

"I hope that one lapse of judgment will not negate my life of service to social work for the last 26 years," she said.

While she was on the University of Kentucky faculty, Mills forwarded an e-mail on her university computer showing a picture of a large black woman, dressed in a teddy, leaning over a balcony. The e-mail says eating bacon grease is unhealthy. Below the picture of the woman's body, which has feet that look out of proportion to her size, the e-mail says "bacon grease will make your feet small."

The e-mail was received by city employee Kay Selter, who was offended. Selter notified UK president Lee Todd at the time, and more recently Mayor Gray and the city's chief administrative officer Richard Moloney, saying Mills should not be confirmed as commissioner.

The council also held confirmation hearings on Tuesday for Cheryl Taylor, nominated to be Commissioner of Public Works and Environmental Quality, and Jane Driskell, Commissioner of Finance and Administration.

After questioning each appointee, the council went into closed session where they did not vote, but by consensus agreed to forward the appointments to the Thursday night council meeting, according to Vice Mayor Linda Gorton. The council is expected to vote Thursday to put a resolution confirming the appointees on the agenda for a first reading.

On Tuesday, Councilman George Meyers questioned Mills closely about the e-mail, asking if it was bad judgment or a pattern of behavior.

Mills said it was poor judgment. After the incident, she said she opened an e-mail account at home for personal correspondence.

At the time, Mills was given a verbal reprimand by her supervisor. Mills said she called the state social work licensing board and asked if she could be censured, and was told no.

Councilman Chris Ford thanked Mills for addressing the issue head-on and "for your courage in enduring this. We all learn from life's lessons."

Councilman Steve Kay asked if the e-mail incident had impacted her working relationship with other professional social workers in the community. Mills said it had not. She said her life was "an open book" and except for the e-mail was "squeaky clean."

Other council members asked about social service issues facing the city and Mills said she thought the most pressing were the lack of youth services, job training and dealing with homeless individuals.

Because of the economy, day labor jobs have dried up, Mills said, so many people are homeless with no employment and no place to go in the daytime.

Mills said Lexington could benefit from a community-wide forum to come up with solutions, noting that she believes Lexington needs a daytime drop-in center for marginally housed people.

After the hearing, Mills said she thought questions about the e-mail were fair.

"The public has the right to know. ... Better it comes forward now than three months later," she said.

But Mills said the e-mail has been made a bigger issue than it deserved.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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