Versailles mayor, council candidates speak at forum
Candidates for mayor of Versailles and the Versailles City Council took part in a two-hour and 40-minute forum last Thursday, Sept. 13, in the courtroom of the Woodford County Courthouse. The event was sponsored by the Woodford County Chamber of Commerce, and questions from the Chamber and public were asked by members of Woodford County High School’s Community Activism Class.
Don Vizi, the executive director of the Chamber, explained that the forum was not a debate and asked the candidates to refrain from personal attacks. Questions were asked on a rotating basis. Space limitations prevent us from printing all of the questions and answers.
Why are you running for office, and what are your main qualifications to serve as Versailles mayor?
Lisa Johnson said she’d like to bring a new vision to Versailles. She said her B.A. in Business Administration prepared her for the job, that she also has a degree in Human Resource Management and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. She said her 23 years in the private sector, during which she managed a $10 million budget, gave her skills transferrable to the office of mayor, as have the last eight years as head of the local Mentors and Meals program.
Mayor Brian Traugott said he was running to continue the good things that have happened in Versailles since he was elected by the council (after then-Mayor Fred Siegelman stepped down) in 2013. He said he ran for the Versailles City Council the year before because he saw a generational gap there. He said he’s always had an interest in government and obtained his B.A. in Economics from U.K. and also attended the Martin School before finishing his master’s degree from the University of Louisville. He said he was extremely proud of the work he and the council have done.
What is your opinion on having a downtown pavilion, and how will the city raise the estimated $1.8 million (for it)?
Traugott said the idea for a pavilion came about during a 2014 “listening session” the city of Versailles paid the Kentucky League of Cities to conduct. He said he and council members have always thought an early estimate of $1.75 million was too expensive and didn’t take into account the loss of parking. “That proposal, in essence, got scrapped, and there’s been a renewed effort to come up with some alternatives that would perhaps repurpose the police station…” he said. Traugott said his preferred method for funding would be to have private entities pay for it. “There’s a real possibility that that plan will come to fruition…” he said. The use of tax dollars should be “minimal to nil,” he said.
Johnson said she didn’t support another study of the subject and instead would reach out to local resources like urban planning development classes at Midway University or U.K. She said a professor told her she could use it as a class project called “Envision Versailles” for free. Johnson said the council’s Downtown Pavilion Committee had met for two years but held just one public meeting, with no minutes taken. She cited similar projects in Lexington and Bardstown as examples of successful downtown pavilions. “I think a simpler structure with the possibility of having nice bathrooms… as well as not interrupting parking would be very important,” Johnson said. Input from young people on the project was key, she said.
What would you say is the most critical issue facing Versailles… and what would you do about it?
Traugott said the drug issue takes precedence because there’s an actual loss of life associated with it. He said the city was taking steps to address the opioid problem, with police doing a “fantastic” job investigating drug dealers and carrying NARCAN to resuscitate overdose victims when an ambulance crew isn’t there first. He said police have used NARCAN 11 times since last December. “I think we’re making progress. I think there’s a lot to do…” Traugott said.
Johnson said what she hears most from voters is the need for more shopping opportunities and other activities for young people. She said there’ve been plenty of great ideas, but not enough implementation of them. She said downtown can be revitalized through small business growth and urban planning, “because there are people who’d love to live in the downtown area.” That would lead to more foot traffic, which would lead to more downtown businesses, she said.
On what would you base your decision on to support annexing property?
Johnson said the elephant in the room is the city’s annexing and inclusion into the Urban Service Boundary (USB) of the 336-acre Edgewood Farm property. (In response to a later question about Edgewood, she said she opposed the move.) She said there were already 1,200 acres in the USB and until those are “utilized to their fullest capacity, I don’t think we need to have a discussion about annexing.” She said the next mayor will have to study the impact of the ongoing Edgewood lawsuit (which could be ruled on next month) “to find out what the litigation tells us.” The city should repurpose existing shopping centers before annexing more farmland, she said.
Traugott said there are about 6,000 residents inside the USB who are not citizens of Versailles. “When it comes to annexing areas like… Colony, Hunter’s Ridge… my position on that is if they want to come in the city, I will gladly support it.” He said he supported the Edgewood annexation unapologetically. “The challenge is, anytime you… develop a property, you’re going to meet opposition from neighboring property owners,” he said. The annexation of Edgewood made sense, in part, because it’s off a four-lane highway with development on three-and-a-half sides of it, he said. He said he believed the family that owns Edgewood should be given the same deference as U-Haul.
Why should you be elected instead of your opponent?
Johnson said she has maturity and experience gained from more than politics. She said voters want somebody who’s “real,” has business experience and is open and transparent. Her experience with public/private partnerships showed her where to go and who to talk to to get things done, she said.
Traugott cited his roots in the community as a lifelong Woodford County resident and his experience as mayor, where he’s overseen a $15-$18 million budget with more than 100 employees. He said he’s seen good and bad in politics and knows how to act and get things done.
Versailles City Council
Six of the dozen candidates for Versailles City Council took part in the forum. (The photo of Mike Coleman was submitted due to apparent camera problems during the forum.)
Why are you running for office and what are your main qualifications to serve as city council member? Tristan Ferrell said he was a 2017 Woodford County High School graduate and was presently studying community and leadership development in U.K.s College of Agriculture. He is the cofounder of Spark Community Café, the nonprofit restaurant thought of by WCHS’s Community Activism class that will open downtown later this year. He also served short stints on the mayor’s Youth Council and the downtown planning and zoning committee, he said. Billy Foster said, “First of all, I don’t know that I have any qualifications,” which drew laughs from other candidates and members of the audience. He said he was running because he loves Versailles and wants to be part of the decisions that are made for the city. “Living in Versailles, I see some things that need to be addressed and things that bother me and I (could) be a part of that,” Foster said. Patrick Hall said as a non-native, he’d bring a unique perspective to the council. He said in New Orleans, he did economic and emergency management-related work for that city’s mayor, and helped with evacuation and recovery plans during Hurricane Katrina. He said the city needs to invest more in tourism. “We need to let other people know how wonderful this community is,” Hall said. Gary Jones said he’s been here since 1993 and has had several businesses, including the Versailles Brewing Company, of which he’s a co-owner. “I think that I can help from a business perspective and (be) a voice for Versailles,” Jones said. Council Member Laura Dake said she was running because, “I don’t feel like I’m done yet.” She cited her work as head of the Downtown Planning Advisory Committee (DPAC). She said as a council member, she’s worked hard, done her homework, asked questions and voted her conscience. She said she listens carefully to constituents and does her best to inform citizens about meetings via social media. Council Member Mike Coleman spoke of his work for a wide variety of local citizen and government groups like the Economic Development Authority, Historical Society, Fair Board and Bluegrass Area Development District. He cited his leadership in the Versailles 4th of July festivities and Christmas Parade. He said he has no ulterior motives or hidden agenda and considers it an honor to serve.
What would be your first priority to make Versailles a better place in which to live and work?
Hall said he would lead the charge to hire a communications director for the city, which needs a central person to do such things as maintain a community calendar and provide information on city council meetings and tourism-related events. The “Uniquely Woodford” brand was not being utilized enough, he said.
Jones said he’d like to see something done to fill empty retail sites, and would like to see studies touting “available infill,” some of which he doesn’t think are really available. He quoted football coach Lou Holtz, saying, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” but said he favored controlled growth.
Dake said as chair of DPAC, she hoped to continue projects like Lexington Road improvements, signage, street art and, next year, wayfinding signage. She said Big Spring Park was close to her heart, but, “I feel like we’re nibbling around the edges with it…” She said a wonderful architectural firm would produce a plan for Big Spring Park for $14,000.
Coleman said, “Just to continue what we started,” saying the city had made a lot of improvements in the last two years in areas like workforce development. He said the “Bridge the Gap” committee he’s part of continues to explore ways to help people facing employment barriers.
Ferrell said the council needs to be transparent. “So our mission should be to talk to everybody in the community to see what they think is beneficial, and then talk about it amongst ourselves to see what’s the most feasible plan,” Ferrell said. Live-streaming and archiving council meetings would be beneficial, too, he said.
Foster said he keeps hearing about the need for affordable housing, but believes much of it here is ugly and drug-plagued. Landlords need to maintain and clean up their properties, he said. “We already have affordable housing. I don’t know if we have enough, but we have affordable housing, and it’s not very well maintained,” Foster said.
Suppose you’re elected and at the end of your term. What do you want people to say that you’ve accomplished that would lead voters to elect you for a second term?
Foster said he would hope to have helped clean up bad areas and make people do things they should already be doing. “We have homes and things like that sitting around town that owners are not maintaining…” Foster said. He said he’d work for the people and listen to them.
Hall said he’d love to say the city had hired a communications/marketing employee, that Big Spring Park had been revitalized and that the council had passed a Fairness Ordinance. “There are nine other cities in this Commonwealth that have protected the rights of everyone… we should be the tenth,” he said.
Jones said he hoped there’d be more infill, that the city would have controlled growth on U.S. 60 and that vacant retail stores would be filled. “If we can do that, I’ll be a happy camper,” Jones said.
Dake said the revitalization of Big Spring Park was important, and that she’d like to see a “beautiful small town that retains its charm and its character and what has made this county famous…” Growth must be sustainable and controlled, she said, adding that she’d love to leave a legacy for area children.
Coleman said finishing present initiatives like the new police station and an expanded and renovated water treatment plan are important to him, as is lowering the poverty rate and managing growth so that Versailles does not resemble Nicholasville or Georgetown. New animal protection laws were a plus, too, he said.
Ferrell said he hopes that the council will do a better job engaging with young people. “… I would also like to say that Versailles is no longer a place to come and retire, but a place to come and raise your families and live and work and play.”