Toward the end of Thursday’s forum for Danville City Commission candidates, Ryan Montgomery remarked on the evening’s decorum, apparently in contrast to the acrimony that often pervades City Commission meetings.
“We were all pretty civil tonight,” said Montgomery, a current member of the commission. “That’s quite an accomplishment.”
There were no raised voices or heated exchanges between the seven candidates as they responded to questions selected by the Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce, host of the forum, and asked by moderator Bill Garriott, a retired professor of government at Centre College.
But there were some pointed words delivered about the way the City Commission has operated over the past two years. The perceived lack of openness, the strained relationship between the city and the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, and appointments to various city boards and committees were roundly criticized.
The harshest comments seemed to target Mayor Bernie Hunstad, who isn’t up for election but attended the forum with Republican Party Chairman Tim Montgomery. Whether he was mentioned directly or not, Hunstad’s management of the city, with help from frequent allies Ryan Montgomery and Norma Gail Louis, was the subtext of much of the evening’s discussion.
In response to a question about how much openness in city government is desirable, all seven candidates said more transparency makes for better government, but a majority said they think Danville is falling short in that area.
“It’s very apparent in our community that the community’s definition of openness has not been met,” incumbent James Atkins said. “We have way too many behind-closed-doors sessions, and I apologize for that. We have had more time in executive session than we’ve had in open session.”
Incumbent Kevin Caudill bemoaned “the lack of transparency we have displayed over the last couple of years, especially after it seemed to be the main theme of the last election. We lost it early. Many people feel like the city is being run behind closed doors.”
Challengers Paige Stevens, Paul Smiley and Janet Hamner also agreed that the public would be better served if more of its business was conducted in public. “I want some transparency I can see through,” Stevens said. “There hasn’t been enough in my opinion.”
Louis defended the commission’s purchase of the BISCO Building, which the state attorney general recently ruled was completed during an illegal executive session.
“We’ve had a lot of criticism, but I don’t know of anything we could have done differently,” she said.
Montgomery said the city’s budgeting process, which some have called secretive, was completed “exactly” as required under the law. The vast majority of executive sessions were called at the request of the city attorney or city manager, not the mayor or commissioners, he said.
A majority of the candidates took issue with Hunstad’s use of his mayoral power to appoint members to various city boards and commissions. No one questioned his authority to make the appointments, but several said the community would be more fairly represented if Hunstad took recommendations from commissioners instead of going it alone.
“Our current mayor should take suggestions from other members of the commission, but that is not the case,” Atkins said.
Smiley added that one person choosing all of the members “could lead to favoritism” and some segments of the community being neglected. The former teacher at Kentucky School for the Deaf also said deaf members of the community are often forgotten when appointments are made and “should be considered for every committee.”
Montgomery agreed “there are better ways to do it,” but defended Hunstad’s handling of the appointments, saying information about the mayor’s choices is readily available to commissioners.
Louis said the city has asked for volunteers to serve on committees but gotten a minimal response and said she has “never hesitated to make a suggestion to the mayor.”
All of the candidates agreed that preserving Danville’s historic downtown is the key to the city’s charm and its future economic success, and most endorsed the work of the Architectural Review Board in making sure that development in the historic district conforms to rules that make the city eligible for state and federal grants.
“It’s recognized that preservation drives economic development more than other areas,” Hamner said. “The ARB is not properly supported (by the city). They have been micro-managed to the point of” not being effective.
Montgomery said while preservation of downtown is “of the utmost importance,” the ARB’s efforts to extend the boundaries of the historic district may be going to far.