Politics & Government

Overview: Jim Gray's first year as Lexington mayor

Mayor Jim Gray hit the  Easy Button  as he sat as desk in between meetings during his first full day as mayor at the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Center in Lexington, Ky., on Monday Jan. 3, 2011.   Photo by Pablo Alcala oe Staff
Mayor Jim Gray hit the Easy Button as he sat as desk in between meetings during his first full day as mayor at the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Center in Lexington, Ky., on Monday Jan. 3, 2011. Photo by Pablo Alcala oe Staff Herald-Leader

Jim Gray campaigned for Lexington mayor as an experienced businessman. He has brought to the job qualities from the corporate world that have been the root of some of his biggest successes and a flash point of his largest stumbles.

In his first year as mayor, Gray's main focus has ranged from a grand vision for Rupp Arena to putting the city's financial house in order.

He dreams big while slogging through the tediousness of running the city.

Terry McBrayer, lawyer, lobbyist and former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said officeholders, whether mayor or president, normally have a three-to-six-month honeymoon. But Gray has been able to extend his, McBrayer said.

"Right now he has the support of a lot of folks out there," McBrayer said.

Gray garners backing from "a fairly remarkable base that pulls from many different segments," McBrayer said. "He continues to cultivate that base. I give him pretty high marks for that."

Former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller said being mayor is always a tough job, "But for Jim, this first year has been particularly rough because of the national recession and its impact on local government." She applauded Gray for keeping his "spirit of optimism and a can-do attitude that has made the city feel good."

She gave Gray high marks for tackling long-standing problems such as the pension fund, personnel issues and health insurance — "issues that are usually in the background but that are very difficult for a mayor."

At the same time he has promoted initiatives to move the city forward, specifically the creation of the Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force to determine the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington convention center. He opened dialogue with the developers of the CentrePointe block to re-envision the design for the empty 2-acre parcel in the heart of downtown.

Also, Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer pushed regional cooperation between Kentucky's two largest cities with the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, or BEAM, to create jobs in advanced manufacturing.

"It's hard to start initiatives while drowning in red ink, but he has managed to do it," Miller said.

One of Gray's first acts was to move the mayor's office from the 12th floor of the Government Center to the first-floor ballroom, fulfilling a campaign promise for more accessibility and transparency.

City spokeswoman Susan Straub said the move has been real as well as symbolic. "There is much more foot traffic in and out of here now," she said. The general public can look in the glass doors and see Gray at work.

Budget woes

Much of Gray's time has been spent looking for ways to save money.

He put in place several cost-saving measures, including 10 percent cuts throughout government to balance the budget. He worked with the Urban County Council to move the city toward a cost-for-service model for employee health insurance. The existing health care plan had a $9.9 million overrun in 2010 and faced a projected $12 million loss in 2011. Without changes, the plan was projected to go over budget by $14 million in 2012.

The health insurance overhaul dramatically increased costs to city employees, including police and fire, and sparked a demonstration in front of city hall led by firefighters.

Repeatedly, Gray reminded city employees cuts and reductions would be painful, but the city's financial "cupboard was bare."

"At the end of the day, restoring financial soundness is going to be better for all city employees and the city. But getting through this is challenging and difficult. We have to do it," Gray said in an interview last week.

He tackled problems in the fire division, the health department and jail.

Several start-up stumbles involved personnel, the most significant being Gray's effort to dismiss Fire Chief Robert Hendricks. Gray asked for Hendricks' resignation, but Hendricks refused.

After Gray set up the arena task force, some employees said that instead of spending time and money on Rupp Arena, those funds should go to increase salaries.

Despite dust-ups in city hall, one poll, commissioned by the administration, showed Gray with a 77 percent approval rating.

Great job even on bad day

Being mayor is a demanding 24/7 job, Gray said.

"It really calls on all your energy and skill and talent, and all the time. And it recognizes all your failings and flaws," he said.

Yet even on a bad day, "It's a great job," he said.

Urban County Council members who responded to requests to assess Gray's first year in office said Gray had generally fared well. "I think he's handled things very competently. I think most everybody feels this way," Julian Beard said.

Gray was vice mayor before challenging Mayor Jim Newberry in the 2010 election. That experience served Gray well, Beard said. Once Gray took office, he confronted "big problems that came to roost all at once," Beard said. These included an approximate $220 million unfunded liability of police and firefighter pension funds and shrinking city revenues.

Steve Kay, council member at-large, said the way the health insurance overhaul was rolled out could have been handled differently.

"People didn't anticipate the change in premiums would be so dramatic, or that employees would be expected to absorb so much of the increased cost in one year," Kay said.

"But on the whole, no big mistakes. He seems to like being mayor. It's a good fit with his background as a CEO," Kay said. "Being on council was not a good fit. He was frustrated."

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton and Gray agreed communication with each other was important. On a fairly regular basis they go for coffee or lunch to discuss issues. "His time on council has allowed him to understand the council perspective. We don't automatically agree with everything the mayor does," Gorton said. "There is a built-in tension between the mayor and council. And that tension is healthy because otherwise you don't get questions."

Gorton, the longest serving council member, has served with four mayors: Miller, Teresa Isaac, Newberry and now Gray. "Each mayor has their own style," she said.

With Gray, there has been some "back and forth between the mayor and council. They were somewhat testy exchanges. In the end, there has been a lot of respect and civility," she said. "Many of us remember past times when that level of civility was not there."

Councilman Doug Martin said he was disappointed that Gray did not do drive-arounds in each district with individual council members as Newberry did, to get to know issues and council members better.

"I'm also disappointed the mayor is not focused more on the pension fund," Martin said. "That is the largest financial issue to face the city in generations."

Gray described his exchanges with the 15 independent-minded council members as "healthy."

"Strong dialogue between the executive and legislative branches is a good thing. It certainly keeps me on my toes. And that's good because it represents accountability," he said.

Problems with police, fire

Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4, said as far as police were concerned, "the honeymoon is over with the mayor." Gray campaigned as a strong advocate for public safety, but "the first thing he did was cut the authorized number of police," Sweeney said.

Gray also tried to change the police home-fleet program that let off-duty officers use their cruisers.

"In a nutshell, we are not happy with Jim Gray after 12 months," Sweeney said.

Police are not the only employees upset with Gray. Pam Brandenburg, president of Lexington's Civil Servant Employee Association, shot off an angry email to Gray after the health plan was unveiled. "This is NOT acceptable," she wrote. "You are, in essence, raping the employees, especially those of us who have not had a raise in six years."

Firefighters were not happy when equipment brownouts were announced, coming on top of tough contract negotiations that froze firefighter salaries for two years and led to other concessions.

Before Christmas, the fire department ordered the 16-foot live Christmas tree be removed from the lobby, saying it posed a fire hazard. Fire department spokesman Battalion Chief Marshall Griggs said that action was not retaliation against Gray for his stand on health insurance.

On Friday, firefighters were in a more amicable mood after Gray announced a new-recruit class of 25 firefighters.

Former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon isn't bullish on Gray. "He's not living up to his potential. Bungling the fire chief's termination, and the inelegant way he stepped on health insurance for employees," Scanlon said. Health insurance costs needed to be brought under control, "but it was a horrible way to go about it. Changes should have been phased in over two or three years."

Scanlon also criticized Gray for hiring people without doing thorough background checks. Bob Ramsey was in line to become general services commissioner when it was revealed that he owned property that had several code-enforcement violations. Ramsey withdrew his name from consideration.

Environmental Quality and Public Works Commissioner Cheryl Taylor was asked to resign after she was warned not to allow her husband to take contracts for city work. Jennifer Mossotti left her position as council liaison, saying only the job "was not a good fit."

And there was the revelation of inappropriate emails sent by Beth Mills, nominated for social services commissioner, during her time at the University of Kentucky. Mills apologized and was later confirmed as commissioner.

"Those things should not have happened," Scanlon said, adding that he did not see "a pool of talent around the mayor. If he was surrounded by talented people, they wouldn't have let him go down the wrong road on some of these issues."

Gray dismissed the personnel stumbles as common in new administrations. A private company has "years to pull a staff together," he said. "In this job you've got two months. You've got to make a lot of calls quickly, especially in personnel. It's to be expected there will be bumps."

Looking ahead

This past year has been "the fastest of any year of my life," Gray said with a snap of his fingers.

On Jan. 24, the mayor gives his second State of the Merged Government speech. Gray said he intends to stay focused on creating jobs, running government efficiently and building Lexington into a great American city.

"We're going to continue to work on issues like pension reform for police and fire, and making our streets safer," Gray said.

Two projects already launched — deciding the future of Rupp and the convention center, plus working on two-way streets downtown — have to be implemented, Gray said. "We've got to stick with them."

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