Merlene Davis: E-mail was wrong, but Mills is right for city job

Lexington Commissioner of Social Services Beth Mills
Lexington Commissioner of Social Services Beth Mills

Whenever I hear the name Beth Mills, I immediately think of a public bathroom.

In a good way.

Beth and I worked together in the late 1970s. She was a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, and I was a single mother and college dropout. She was a social worker, and I was a social service aide on the Adult Services team.

I have no idea why our boss, Linda Burchell, hired either of us. We were opinionated, loud, willing to fight for what we believed in and bullheaded.

Anyway, when I heard Beth was associated with an e-mail message that could be perceived as racist, I didn't believe it. That would not be the Beth that I know and have known for more than 30 years.

Beth doesn't deny forwarding a message depicting a large black woman, dressed in a teddy, leaning over a balcony. The caption says something about bacon grease, leading the reader to think consuming bacon grease is the reason the woman is so large. But the punch line, after the reader scrolls down past the picture of the body with feet that look far too small and out of proportion for the woman's size, is "bacon grease will make your feet small."

Beth forwarded the message from her UK mail account in September 2006. Beth was then the director of field instruction at the UK College of Social Work. After UK President Lee Todd was alerted by someone who was offended by the e-mail, Beth was reprimanded.

Now the offense has been revisited because of Beth's appointment as commissioner of social services.

Beth forwarded the e-mail, which she received from a black friend, because of the surprising punch line, she said.

"That's still no excuse," Beth said. "I sent it to a few friends, but I didn't think of the ramifications. My sincere apologies to anyone who was offended. You learn more in life from your mistakes than your successes."

Questions about the e-mail arose during the interview process with Mayor Jim Gray for her new position, she said. Gray was satisfied with what he learned and appointed Beth anyway.

For the marginalized people of Lexington, for the elderly, the youth and the unemployed and underemployed who reside here, it was the best move he could have made.

I have never met a more completely compassionate social worker in all my life than Beth.

Beth and I had run-ins in the beginning, when we worked together, just because we each wanted what we perceived as right. The image of a public bathroom pops up when I think of her because of a very loud, confrontational argument we had in the office one day. Afterward, we found ourselves in separate stalls in the bathroom. That's where we hashed things out, accepted our different opinions and let the dispute die.

Burchell, fortunately, didn't know about the argument until I mentioned it to her last week. I asked why she hired Beth.

"I found her to be an intelligent and caring young lady, especially at that age," Burchell said. "I always knew she was special and, on some cases that I still can't talk about, she proved herself special."

Burchell would worry about me, Beth and another social worker when we left the office because our passion sometimes overruled good sense, she said.

"I wanted you to learn how to work with people who were coming to us for help," she said, "and always be on their side."

The Beth I know will do just that, now that she is in a policy-making role.

"That's my excitement about this job," Beth said. "We have a stellar social services community in Lexington, which makes it easier to bring people together."

There are four areas of need in Lexington that Commissioner Mills — I'm calling her that now out of respect for her title — wants to address:

■ Mills wants to do better by the homeless and marginally housed in this area, and that has to be accomplished through community conversations.

"It's not just about moving them out of downtown," she said.

■ Kentucky ranked No. 2 in the nation for locking up young people for misconduct that is not criminal and would not be illegal if committed by an adult.

Mills said young black males are on the receiving end of that heavy-handed justice and are getting left behind. Laws have to change.

■ With a growing number of Baby Boomers becoming senior citizens, Lexington needs to step up services for seniors and, when money can be found, build a new senior citizens center, she said.

■ And Lexington needs to work more closely with Kentucky Workforce Investment to create more job-training opportunities, she said. Ex-offenders, people leaving drug-rehabilitation programs, the unemployed, and the 995 refugees who have resettled in Lexington during the past decade need to have the skills to earn a living wage.

That's the Beth I know. And Burchell agrees.

"She would be the last person in the world I would think would have a biased bone in her body," Burchell said.

Gray could have picked someone just as qualified as Beth to be commissioner, but he couldn't have found anyone more willing to go the extra mile for those in need. Beth might be in-your-face at times, but she will also have your back.