During Sunday's first televised candidate forum for the Nov. 4 mayoral race, incumbent Jim Gray made his case to remain in office, and opponent Anthany Beatty told voters that Lexington needed a change.
Gray and Beatty used their opening and closing remarks during the nearly 60-minute forum to take jabs at each other. Sunday's debate was the first time the two have verbally sparred during the general election campaign.
Beatty, a former Lexington police chief who is now a University of Kentucky administrator, came in second in the May primary to Gray. Gray, a former CEO of Gray Construction, was elected mayor in 2010, defeating then-Mayor Jim Newberry.
The race is nonpartisan.
The candidate forum was sponsored by WKYT-TV, the Lexington League of Women Voters and the Herald-Leader.
Gray told Beatty that he had provided more funding to public safety during the past three years than all previous administrations.
Beatty has criticized Gray repeatedly for allowing the number of police officers to decrease during the past several years, and he says that recent efforts to hire additional police officers and firefighters is an attempt to play catchup before the Nov. 4 election.
"It is easy to criticize," Gray said of Beatty's complaints. "Leadership is about promoting our city, not tearing it down."
"Public safety is our top priority and our budget proves it," Gray said. But the city has other priorities — streets and roads, parks, social services and job creation. "I should ask Anthany which of these services does he want to cut? Or which tax does he want to raise to build a police force the size of cities like Oakland or Sacramento, California?"
In his closing statement, Beatty said voters should ask themselves three questions before Nov. 4.
"Has Jim Gray made mistakes and bad decisions regarding public safety?" Beatty said. "Number two: Has Jim Gray made mistakes and bad decisions on the Rupp Arena project?"
The third question: Have these mistakes reflected poorly on the city of Lexington?
"Four years ago Jim Gray said in his own words, and I quote, 'We all make mistakes. But when a mayor keeps making mistakes and makes bad decisions, it's time for a new leader.'"
The questions in the debate focused on the minimum wage, using public money to build infrastructure for faster Internet speeds, protection of farmland, and efforts to get more affordable housing in Lexington.
Gray and Beatty each said they would be open to looking at raising the minimum wage but expressed reservations about Lexington passing a minimum-wage ordinance if surrounding areas continued to use the federal minimum. The Louisville Metro Council is considering a citywide ordinance requiring all businesses to raise the minimum wage.
"I do support the idea of increasing the minimum wage for all employees," Beatty said. "We need to look at the areas surrounding Lexington. I would like to see us move in the same direction at the same time."
Gray said that at city hall and at Gray Construction, employees were paid more than minimum wage.
"I believe strongly and vigorously that we should examine this issue the same way that our competitor cities are across the country," Gray said.
Neither committed to using public money to build a better fiber-optic infrastructure to increase Lexington's Internet speeds. Gray announced last month that the city would release a request for information to see whether there was interest in a private-public partnership or commercial-only solution to build a fiber-optic network.
Lexington's average Internet speed is 16.2 megabits per second. That puts it 38th out of 96 Kentucky cities and towns where the Internet is available.
Beatty said Lexington was behind other cities such as Chattanooga, which is moving forward with plans to build infrastructure for faster Internet.
"I certainly think all options are on the table," Beatty said. "I do support the opportunity to fund it. How we fund it is what we will have to discuss when we get to the table and we see what the plans are."
Gray said he appointed a task force more than a year ago to look at the issue, which Beatty and Gray said Sunday was key to economic development. Gray said other cities have built fiber-optic networks without using tax dollars.
The task force recommended the city explore private-public or possibly just private options to improve Internet speed, he said. "We are examining what we can do to take advantage of the new technology," Gray said. "Private capital is moving in this direction."
During the debate, Gray focused on his commitment to public safety, how he steered the city through lean financial times and how he is working to create jobs. Beatty, meanwhile, focused on his more than 35 years in public safety and his long history of being an inclusive leader who seeks input before making decisions.
Gray and Beatty will participate in two more forums this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday.