With two weeks left to sway voters, the candidates for mayor of Lexington answered questions about the Eastland Parkway neighborhood at a forum Tuesday evening, and they even agreed on a couple of points.
But no forum that includes the words "Kentucky American Water" will avoid the sharp differences that have characterized the contest between Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray.
The first clash occurred about halfway through the hourlong event, when the candidates were asked a multipart question that ended with: "What relationship do you have with Kentucky American Water Co., financial or otherwise?"
Gray answered first: "I have no relationship that is going to compromise my ability to negotiate forcefully with the water company."
He went on to say, as he has before, that if Newberry disagrees with the 37 percent rate increase the water company recently put into effect (pending a Public Service Commission decision that is due soon), he should give back what Gray calls "the $28,000 in political contributions he has received from the water company."
"I have received nothing, zero in contributions from the water company," Gray said.
Newberry disagreed: "He says I've taken $20,000 from the water company. Well, if you use that logic and include everybody who's ever represented the water company, everybody who's ever been employed by the water company, he's taken $7,200 and change. The figure he had was 'zero.' Not true."
Gray looked surprised, but Newberry's campaign said that figure came from contributions from attorneys at Stoll Keenon Odgen, one of the city's largest law firms. The firm has represented Kentucky American for years, and contributions from the firm were included in the figure Gray used for Newberry's contributions. Also included are lobbyists for the firm, and present and past company employees.
Newberry pressed the attack, pointing out that when both men appeared before the PSC in June, Gray suggested that Lexington didn't have a water shortage and doesn't need a new water plant that recently began operating on the Franklin-Owen county line.
"If you don't think we have a water shortage in Lexington, you've got no credibility to talk about water issues," Newberry said.
At that point, their argument about the water company fell back to a familiar pattern.
Gray said he and six other Urban County Council members voted in 2008 to pay a consultant $15,000 to compare Kentucky American's proposal for the new plant with a proposal by Louisville Water Co. to pump treated Ohio River water to Lexington.
Newberry said the PSC did that comparison and found the costs of the projects were about equal.
Later, when the candidates were asked to choose one decision as a public servant that they would change, Gray said, "I would work harder to push for a real examination of the water company."
Newberry said the water supply was a long-standing problem when he came into office. From 1999 to 2008, he said, the Bluegrass Water Supply Commission studied more than 40 possible alternatives. In the end, he said, the commission settled on the "Kentucky River solution" that Kentucky American ultimately followed.
The forum was sponsored by the Eastland Parkway Neighborhood Association and the League of Women Voters. It was held at Spen cerian College. The next forum is at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Small Ballroom at the University of Kentucky Student Center.