The open race for Lexington's top job has attracted one of the largest fields of candidates in recent history. And the number of candidates will likely make for a messy primary season.
A Wednesday mayoral forum sponsored by UK Student Government and organized by UK journalism students gave a glimpse of that The forum was short on questions — it took a long time to allow all candidates to respond. And few candidates were able to offer many specifics.
Another wrinkle: Teresa Isaac, a former mayor and vice mayor, had laryngitis and had to relay her responses to UK Professor Buck Ryan, the moderator of the event, who then told the crowd.
The only candidate that did not attend was William Weyman.
The top two vote getters in the May 22 primary will move on to the November general election. The race is nonpartisian. No polls have been publicly released in the seven-way race. Incumbent Mayor Jim Gray announced in December he would not seek a final and third term, making it the first open race for mayor since Pam Miller opted not to seek a third term in 2002.
The candidates spoke mostly on school safety, crime and sustainable growth during the two-hour event on UK's campus.
Kevin Stinnett, a 14-year Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman, said safe schools start with safe neighborhoods.
"Safety starts at your front door," Stinnett said. "You should have a safe neighborhood.... It doesn't start when you get to school."
Stinnett said the city is exploring a partnership with Fayette County schools to help purchase metal detectors.
Ike Lawrence, who owns several downtown properties, said guns weren't the problem.
"I don't think we have a guns problem or a shooting problem; we have a bullying problem." Lawrence said he thinks all kids should wear uniforms or have a uniform dress code. Schools should also be limiting cell phone use during school, he said.
Isaac said when she was vice mayor she chaired a safe schools task force and met with principals and parents. She took Lexington police officers into the schools to address bullying and other safety issues — including safety when exiting buses.
A strong partnership between Lexington police and the schools is key, said Skip Horine, who has run two previous times for mayor. Horine said he was bullied as a child and no one took it seriously. Schools needs to step up enforcement of bulling, he said. "My experience was they didn't do anything," Horine said.
Linda Gorton, a former vice mayor who had served 16 years on the council, said making sure schools have access to mental health resources is also key. Gorton said when she served as a council member, the council and school board met regularly to discuss issues such as safety.
"The bottom line is without talking to each other and talking within our schools, we can not get to any solutions," Gorton said.
Former Lexington Police Chief Ronnie Bastin said the city has developed the "One Lexington" program that is currently working in the Winburn area. It brings nonprofits and other groups together to focus on violence prevention in that neighborhood. There is no one answer to crime and violence prevention, he said.
"Until we get to the root causes of why kids may feel like they need to carry guns, we are always going to be treating the symptoms," Bastin said. "I am not in favor of arming teachers."
Helping the school system find the latest technologies to keep guns out of schools is a must. More counselors is also key.
"Kids need to have anchors in schools; someone they can talk to," Bastin said.
Another issue that split candidates was about sustainable development. Some candidates spoke about Lexington's urban growth boundary. Others spoke about other sustainable initiatives.
Stinnett said the debate has been framed as "growth or no growth," when it comes to expanding the city's urban service boundary. The last time the boundary was expanded was in 1996.
"I'm not an advocate for expanding today," Stinnett said. "But what we do have to do is to make sure that we have enough land for jobs."
Occupational taxes — or taxes on jobs — are the city's main funding source. Without job growth, the city's revenues will suffer, he said.
"We are quickly becoming a Boulder, Colorado, where the average home price is $500,000 and city employees can't afford to live there," Stinnett said. "Who wants that?"
Lawrence said he favors infill and redevelopment. "We have a lot of abandoned homes on the north end of town," Lawrence said. Those could be redeveloped.
As mayor, Isaac said she supported a "live where you work" program with UK that helped UK employees buy homes close to campus. Isaac said she also supported another program for first-time home-buyers to make sure those buyers weren't being priced out of the market. Isaac also said she made sure new city buildings were energy efficient.
Horine said Lexington is quickly becoming a major metro area such as Louisville.
"We need to plan for that," Horine said. "We need to plan for a metro area.. that includes all the surrounding counties."
Gorton said the city also has to be mindful that its agricultural sector is also a player in the economy and is a critical part of Fayette County and Lexington's identity.
"When I see jobs... I don't just see a factory. I don't just see a built business," Gorton said. "Agricultural in Fayette County is a $2.3 billion industry."
Gorton said she supported both the rural land management plan and the purchase of development program, which buys conservation easements to protect farmland. "We are never going to be a manufacturing town," Gorton said. "We are very different and unique."
Bastin said he does not think the city's growth boundary should be expanded right now.
Bastin said he thinks there should be more incentives for hard-to-develop infill land. But he said the city must start planning soon for when the currently available infill land has all been developed.
"I think we have to prepare for that before we get to that point. We have to have a plan," Bastin said. "The last thing we should do is kick the can down the road, wait for the time to occur and let it become political football."
The People’s Campaign Community Network and Operation Turnout will host a forum on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Farish Theater in the Lexington Public Library, 140 Main Street. The WKYT, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the League of Women Voters forum will be held at 6 p.m. May 7 also at the Farish Theater at the Lexington Public Library.