Jessamine County

Nicholasville considers changing form of government

NICHOLASVILLE — Once again, city residents here are being asked to change their form of government.

A nonpartisan group called the Council Petition Committee hopes to gather enough signatures to put a question on the Nov. 8 general election ballot that would ask whether Nicholasville should change from a city commission to a city council form of government.

A city council for the Jessamine County seat would be more responsive to the needs and concerns of Nicholasville's 28,000 residents, said Perry Barnes, chairman of the petition committee. The mayor and three of the four current commissioners live on the city's west side, Barnes said.

Going to a council form with members elected from wards would mean "better neighborhood representation," Barnes said. "The east side of Nicholasville has hardly any representation."

Nicholasville, with more than 200 employees, a $14 million general fund budget and a $23 million utility budget, now has a mayor and four commissioners who are elected as citywide representatives.

Commissioner Johnny Collier said the commission form of government is a "more fair form of representation" because all voters throughout the city cast ballots and the top vote-getters win seats to represent the city as a whole. As for the argument that a majority of commission members come from the city's west side, Collier noted that no eastside residents filed as candidates in the 2010 election for city commissioner.

"It's like the lottery: If you don't buy a ticket, you can't win," Collier said.

Nicholasville had a city council form of government at one time but voters chose to go to a commission in 1972.

Each commissioner is paid $19,000 a year, and each has a limited day-to-day supervisory function over Nicholasville departments.

For example, City Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Doug Blackford oversee the water and sewer departments; Collier oversees the police and fire departments; Commissioner Pete Sutherland oversees the electric and meter departments; Commissioner Andy Williams oversees the street department and city cemetery; and Mayor Russ Meyer oversees the city's administration and finance.

A city council can have six to 12 members, although Barnes anticipates that the number would be six in Nicholasville. The actual number would be prescribed by ordinance. Collier said increasing the size of the representative body would likely mean more expense for the city.

With a city council, the mayor would have more hiring and firing authority. And in a council form the mayor would not have a vote except in case of a tie. Under the commission form, the mayor and each commissioner has one vote.

The aim of the petition drive is to collect enough signatures of registered voters equal to at least 20 percent of the votes cast in the city in the 2008 presidential election. The petition drive will need to collect at least 2,101 signatures, said Jessamine County Clerk Eva McDaniel.

Once the petition is filed, the county clerk must certify the signatures. If enough signatures are certified, then the question would be put on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If residents voted to approve a council form of government, the new council members would be elected in 2012 and would take office in 2013, McDaniel said.

The petition drive has the support of former Nicholasville Mayor John Martin, who said he has gone door-to-door to solicit signatures. A previous petition drive in 2006 sought support to change Nicholasville's form of government, but that effort fizzled without gaining the necessary signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

Barnes, who came in last in the 2010 Republican primary for 6th District Congressional District, said Friday that the petition drive has "a few hundred" signatures. The petition committee plans to talk about the council form of government with various neighborhood groups, he said.

Mayor Russ Meyer, who served three, two-year terms as a city commissioner before becoming mayor in 2007, opposes changing to a council form of government. In an opinion piece published in The Jessamine Journal, Meyer posed this question: "Do you prefer that your elected leaders make decisions as a team for the overall welfare of the city rather than looking out for only one segment's interests?"

Or, as Meyer put it more succinctly in an interview, "the commission form of government is about people, not politics."