Fayette County

Realtor named to fill term of indicted former Lexington council member

A Realtor and planning commission member was picked Friday to serve the remaining 18-month term of an indicted former Lexington council member.

Mayor Jim Gray named Joseph M. Smith, 62, to the Urban County Council’s vacant 2nd District seat. Smith has served on the Townley Park Homeowners Association and has been involved in many community organizations, including Lexington Jaycees and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass.

Smith replaces Sasha Love Higgins, who resigned April 27 shortly after she was indicted on five felony charges stemming from her employment as the general manager of a Lexington hotel. Higgins, 34, has pleaded not guilty to identity theft, forgery and three counts of theft by deception.

Smith will serve until December 2018. He said after his swearing-in ceremony Friday in the lobby of the Government Center that he plans to run for re-election. Urban County Council races are nonpartisan, but voter registration records show that Smith is a Democrat.

The 2nd District includes Georgetown Street and Leestown Road. It’s a growing and diverse area in west Lexington.

First on his to-do list is talking to neighborhood groups and leaders in the 2nd District, Smith said.

“I’m excited and looking forward to it. District 2 is a great district,” he said. “I want to get out there and meet the people and the leaders of the 2nd District. ... I have to see what people are talking about. ... My job is to listen; it’s not my job to come in there and tell people what they need to do.”

The father of three and grandfather of five will begin his term during a particularly busy time. On Tuesday, the council will begin deliberations in earnest on Mayor Gray’s proposed $358 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The council has until June 30 to make any changes to Gray’s budget.

Smith would not say Friday whether he supports expanding the urban service area, the growth boundary. The city is beginning discussions about the 2017 Comprehensive Plan. A key part of that plan is whether to expand that growth boundary.

“That is still in the process,” he said. “I think the city has done well on the comprehensive plan. ... Whatever comes out of it will be positive for the city, once it’s final.”

Smith has never held an elected position. He was appointed to the planning commission in 2014 for a term that ends July 2018. He must resign from the planning commission to take the council seat. Before his appointment to the planning commission, which oversees zone changes, he served on the merged government’s board of adjustment, which oversees conditional-use permits and zoning enforcement cases.

He also served on the Lexington Catholic High School Board last year during the time a 17-year-old boy was charged with harassing communications and third-degree terroristic threatening. In that case, described in a lawsuit, a mother found threatening messages to her son, a black football player, on his computer. Lexington Catholic was sued in August for alleged sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other charges.

Smith is no longer on the board of Lexington Catholic, his alma mater. He said Friday that he couldn’t comment on the controversy because of lawsuits against the school.

This is the fourth time since 2015 that Gray has had to appoint someone to fill an unexpired term on the Urban County Council. Gray appointed James Brown, the current First District Councilman, to his position in April 2015, to fill the unexpired term of Chris Ford, who became the city’s social service commissioner. Later, Gray tapped Russ Hensley to serve the unexpired term of Ed Lane, the 12th District councilman, who died unexpectedly in August 2015. Hensley later resigned. Gray appointed Kathy Plomin, the current 12th District councilwoman, to fill the seat.

Gray confirmed that more than 10 people were interviewed for the appointment, the most of all previous appointments. The amount of interest in the seat speaks volumes about the willingness of people in the 2nd District to serve, he said.

Smith stood out because of his longtime commitment to the 2nd District, his public service and his knowledge of the city as whole. Smith has been a real estate agent for more than 30 years. He is familiar with all areas of the city, not just the 2nd District, Gray said.

“Joe is well prepared to be a council member,” Gray said. “He has been active in his neighborhood, in public service and is a Lexington native who cares about his hometown.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall