Slogging through Newberry, Gray's water debate

Jim Gray, left and Jim Newberry
Jim Gray, left and Jim Newberry

We handed the candidates for mayor of Lexington water balloons and let them decide what to do with them.

They added a little spit and several squirts of spin, and lobbed them at each other.

In a series of candidate-to-candidate debates the Herald-Leader and Bluegrass Politics are conducting over the next eight weeks, we decide on a subject and let the candidates come up with a question.

The first issue: Water.

Through drought, floods and a prolonged condemnation battle, water has long spurred sharp divisions in Lexington politics.

In the current race, the fight is about a new Kentucky American Water treatment plant that is nearing completion on the Kentucky River north of Frankfort.

It is expected to be operating before voters go the polls on Nov. 2 to choose between Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray, but that didn't stop them from arguing over how the plant came to be and whether it's needed.

Here's a look at what the candidates said, didn't say and got wrong.

■ Newberry said Gray had previously acknowledged Lexington has a water supply problem, but now claims it doesn't. His question: "Why do you waffle irresponsibly ...?"

Gray did not answer that question, instead accusing Newberry of "pay to play" for taking political contributions from people connected to Kentucky American.

But in his rebuttal to a Newberry answer, Gray said the new plant is "unnecessary and unneeded" and said "it could have been remedied with a new, more reliable source."

In an interview Friday, Gray said "I never said there was no issue" about water supply.

That seems to contradict his statement at a Public Service Commission meeting late last month, when he talked about diminished industrial demand for water and said "... we don't have the need today that justifies this amount."

On Friday, the Newberry campaign produced a November 2007 letter that Gray and 10 other Urban County Council members sent to the PSC. It said "since 1999 water supply has been a serious issue for our region," and encouraged the PSC to consider a plan to build a pipeline from Louisville.

■ Gray asked Newberry, "Shouldn't we be skeptical?" because the mayor has accepted $18,000 in campaign contributions "from those with ties from Kentucky American Water."

Newberry questioned that number, but noted that it was "only about 1 percent of my total support."

On Friday, the Gray campaign produced a list of contributors who have given more than $20,000 to Newberry's 2006 campaign and his 2010 re-election campaign.

A news release put out by the Gray campaign while the candidates were asking and rebutting questions mentioned the $18,000 figure in one sentence and said "Newberry gets campaign cash for his re-election" in the next sentence.

The total clearly covers two campaigns and contains contributions from some former water company employees, lobbyists for the company and the political action committee of the law firm that represents the company.

Newberry has reported raising about $1.7 million during his 2006 and 2010 campaigns for mayor.

■ Another major dispute in the debate was Newberry's role in the Kentucky American plant getting approved. The PSC is the agency that has approval power, but, in late 2007, it asked Lexington officials for input.

In the debate, Gray said to Newberry that "... we needed a thoughtful analysis of our water supply and our options, and you blocked it."

Newberry responded that he opposed spending $15,000 in early 2008 for what he called "a superficial review" of Kentucky American's proposal and one by Louisville Water Co. Newberry accurately noted the Urban County Council agreed with him. Gray was on the losing end of an 8-7 vote against spending the money.

■ Newberry said the PSC studied the competing plans and "found Kentucky American most cost effective." Not exactly. The PSC found the long-term costs of both proposals to be "nearly identical," but said the Louisville plan "never evolved beyond a series of concepts."

Newberry apparently knew that — he used the phrase "nearly identical" in talking to the PSC last month.

■ Gray said the debate over the two plans happened in 2006. Newberry responded with a sharp "Get your facts straight" because it happened in 2008.

Gray knew the correct year, describing the time frame as "two and a half years ago" when he spoke to the PSC last month. Jamie Emmons, Gray's campaign manager, accepted blame for the error, saying he typed in the wrong year when sending Gray's response to the Herald-Leader.

■ Gray said in the debate that with two treatment plants on the Kentucky River, "Newberry's plan relies on the Kentucky River only." In a news release, Gray's campaign described the new plant as "a few miles down" from the existing plant, and says that leaves Lexington "with no backup plan" in case of drought, a spill or a rapid growth spurt.

Newberry says that when the new plant opens, "Lexington will have two sources of water, not one."

The two plants are 120 river miles apart, and there is much more water available in the Kentucky River north of Frankfort. A spill affecting both plants was considered as the concept for the second was being developed, but was considered unlikely.