City Commission

City Commission candidates

ASHLAND Jobs and fairness ordinances were among the many topics tackled by the eight candidates vying for seats on the Ashland City Commission during a question and answer session last week.

This is the third installment of a series of fact-checking and contextualization articles, comparing what the candidates said to the facts out there.

In prior installments, the candidates took up heavy issues such as the city’s infrastructure challenges and the drug epidemic. This will wrap up the generalized portion of the session, wherein all candidates responded to the same question.

In this installment, the candidates dealt with how to attract good-paying jobs into the city and a question submitted by Myrna Hill regarding whether the commission should take up a fairness ordinance protecting LGBTQIA-Plus (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual-plus) members of the community, as well as African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.  

As always, it is up to you, the reader and the voter, to decide whether or not a candidate is speaking the truth.


MARTY GUTE: We are aggressive in our community development department, as well as working with Ashland Alliance, working with the county. We are not going to attract the big manufacturing plants like we used to. When I graduated from high school, I went straight to work at Armco; worked there for 20 years. That’s not going to happen now. But I’m happy to say we did land Danieli a couple of months ago which will pay about $31 per hour, and up to 60 employees. I was just down there the other day, and that’s truly a gift. And it’s because we had a workforce-ready community of people that know what they’re doing and are trained in that kind of work. It is a blow to us, at AK, Our Lady of Bellefonte and Marathon, but Ashland has evolved into a retail hub. Our retail is very, very strong. I think we’re going to land a lot of other small companies, but the days of the big companies are gone.

GERALD THOMPSON: Again, jobs are a central focus. This is what we are all about. I think we need first of all to look at what it takes to establish and start a business here in Ashland and make it as easy as we can. This means we need a clean sheet of paper look at taxing, at regulation and the business process here in Ashland. The other piece of this is where the commission will have to get its eyes above the water line and stop focusing on the Ashland city limits. We are a region, our workforce, frankly, lives outside Ashland. We need to — this is an opportunity to take Eric Chaney up on the challenge he put to the board a couple of weeks ago to integrate with the county and start talking about human development, business development on a county scale, not just in our own little rice bowl.

CONTEXT: At the Sept. 24 commission meeting, Boyd County Judge-Executive Eric Chaney issued a challenge to the city to work closely with the county in the future. During his comments, Chaney stressed that if Ashland does well, Boyd will do well, too. The same goes for Catlettsburg. Mayor Steve Gilmore thanked Chaney for his comments. The focus of the meeting, though, centered around the opening of Broadway Square the following day.

AMANDA CLARK: Thank you. What I do for my profession is economic development, so how to attract jobs to this region is what I live basically. I agree with Mr. Thompson. We pull from 360,000 people from within an hour from here, that’s our workforce. I was instrumental in the workforce study of 27 counties in eastern Kentucky that told us exactly the skills our workforce has, told how far they’re willing to travel for what wage. We’re in the process of updating that workforce study because it’s about four years old. We use that consistently to recruit, because what we found is with companies, they’re not necessarily location-bound anymore, they’re looking for a place they can get people to work for them, a skilled workforce. We have the evidence that we have that here. It takes some time, but we’re getting to the place where people understand that that’s what we have and it’s one of our major recruitment tools.

FACT CHECK: The 360,000 number is actually closer to the amount of people in the Huntington-Ashland Metropolitan Statistical Area, which consists of Greenup and Boyd counties in Kentucky, Cabell, Wayne and Lincoln counties in West Virginia and Lawrence County in Ohio. The Census Bureau pegs the population of the MSA at 355,873. When looking at counties an hour away from Ashland, that would include counties not falling into the MSA. That includes (give or take a couple minutes) Lewis, Martin, Lawrence, Johnson, Carter and Elliott counties in Kentucky and Scioto, Jackson and Gallia counties in Ohio. All told, those counties add up to about 236,875 according to the census, which would make the grand total about 592,748 for folks within that radius. The Ashland Alliance offers a more conservative number, by including portions of counties that are both in the MSA and outside the MSA that are an hour away from Ashland and appears to show the labor force, not the overall population. The raw number in that estimate is 166,571, per the chamber website.

CONTEXT: The Eastern Kentucky Works study was sponsored by Kentucky Power, the Ashland Alliance, the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program and Shaping our Appalachian Region. Boyette Associates is conducting the survey, which is undergoing a second round this year. The City of Ashland itself is not a sponsor of the survey.

BECKY MILLER: I agree somewhat with both of them. I think, of course, making it easier for businesses to locate here is a primarily goal. We need to look at education. We need to have a workforce that can be willing to stay here because they have something to stay here for. And some people will say that we don’t really have a loss of jobs, that we still have the same jobs, but do we have jobs that pay a decent wage? That’s what I look at. Are we going to be able to recruit big manufacturers like AK? Maybe not. But why not look at recruiting 20 smaller businesses that can maintain what we’ve lost here, you know? And still pay the same wage. So I think the addiction goes with that as well. We need to find a way to combat the addiction issue because that’s going to therefore increase being able to have a better workforce as well.

CHERYL SPRIGGS: I think everyone that’s spoken so far, their ideas are all excellent. I think it’s sad that our top employers are non-profits and I think even the city is one of the top employers. This is a sign of trouble and I agree with commissioner Gute that we’re not going to be attracting huge companies but we could do well with medium and small businesses. I also happened to think — and I’ve said this time and again — a viable downtown goes hand in hand with economic development. People want to live somewhere that has a great downtown and I think our dedication of Broadway is a step forward in that direction and I think our retail business will grow, but we all want to see great businesses move here. Medium, small, we’ll take them all. Thank you.

FACT CHECK: For the fiscal year 2017, the city of Ashland released the top 10 employers in the city proper, based on the number of W2s each employer issued. Ranked first to last, they were as follows: King’s Daughter’s Medical Center, Ashland Independent School District, Walmart, Texas Roadhouse, City of Ashland, Kentucky Community and Technical College, Pathways Inc., JCPenney, Woodland Oaks Inc. and Cheddar’s. Of these employers, two are registered as non-profits, two are government entities, one is an institution of higher education and five are for-profit businesses.

JOSH BLANTON: I’m in the manufacturing world, that’s what I do. I’ve done it for over 10 years. But I’m also an adjunctant professor at Marshall University and I teach applied human statistics and that’s allowed me to learn a little more about the economy and what goes on. We’re a service-based economy now, that’s changed over the last few years and that’s one of the reasons why I look at things like Destination Ashland that I’m proud to be a part of — it’s an awesome initiative — that’s really spurred growth and drive new business and excitement downtown that can solve so many different things. Jumping back to the manufacturing world for a little bit, I can tell you as someone who has hired hundreds of people in this area, that what Commissioner Clark said is true and we need to work on the skills of our workforce. The ACTC Program, the AIT Program, has just been unbelievable. We have three people at my plant from that program and I can’t say enough about that. That’s exactly what we need. We need to train our people.

BERNICE HENRY: I’d just like to say everyone has given some great points and they’re all a part of what we need. What we also need is to figure out a way to keep our young people here. We not only need some good jobs, we need some young people to fill those jobs. They need to be highly skilled. They need to be jobs that do not hire a great deal of people, but will employ enough people so they can have a decent living. And that’s something that each of you brought out. And Ashland has changed. I’ve lived here long enough to realize that. We’ve gone from a large population to a lucrative small population. We’ve changed from large industry to smaller businesses and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing.

CONTEXT: Since 1950, when Henry was a little girl, the city has shrunk by a third. According to the 1950 census, Ashland had 31,228 inhabitants in the city, roughly a 2,000-person gain from the 1940 census. Census records show the population began to free fall starting in the 1980 census — the city has hovered around 20,000 since 2000.

RANDY MEMMER: Well, I have spent 15 years on the board of the Ashland Alliance. I’ve went through three different presidents. Over those years, I have created hundreds of jobs in the Ashland area. I’m probably the only one here who works in Ashland, has a business in Ashland and pays property taxes in Ashland. I want to see the city do what we did 40 years ago, which was when a business came in here, we did everything we possibly could to help that business get started and get going. We didn’t fight them with code enforcement, we didn’t fight them with not doing what they’re supposed to be doing with the downtown area. So, the Boyd County Schools helped us at the time, when we were employing future generations and I think that’s what we’re going to have to go back to.

CONTEXT: While it’s hard to pin down just how many people Memmer has employed over the years, a search of the Kentucky Secretary of State website shows he owned Dairy Cheer on that was on 29th Street from 1976 until 1994, as well as various real estate, flooring and painting businesses over the years.

Fairness ordinances for LGBTQIA and racial minorities

BLANTON: Great question. I was proud to actually to do a training, a safe-space training last week. First of all, I hope people actually look that up and see what that’s about. We have people in our communities who are not treated fairly, right? We need to — as an employer, I’m interested in that, as a citizen, I’m interested in that. So I think that it’s important to look at this through the mindset of how does this person feel. Again, the word empathy, it’s not a bad word. And to understand that none of our beliefs are all exactly the same. We have to understand that people, though, that people are going through things in this community. We have to be willing to reach out to them to understand how to combat that.

CONTEXT: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a safe space is defined as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism or potentially threatening actions, ideas or conversations.” Safe spaces, which began to catch on over the later half of the 2010s, are typically for minority groups who feel threatened in wider society.

MILLER: Of course, I think we need to be inclusive of everyone in the city of Ashland. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is and it doesn’t matter who you decide to love. And we’ve raised our children the same way. You love who you love. It does not matter who it is. So we do need to make sure we are clear in our stance as a community that you are accepted in Ashland, you are loved in Ashland, you are welcomed here. That’s as simple as it gets. If we have to put something on the books, let’s do it. Because we need to be fair across the board.

CONTEXT: The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, found that employers cannot fire an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identification. Using the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court decided 6-3 (with Justices Roberts and Goursch crossing over to the liberal wing of the court) that prohibitions against discrimination based on sex should also include sexual orientation or gender identity. Ashland City Attorney Jim Moore said it’s likely the prohibition of employment discrimination will be extended to other forms of discrimination based on the ruling. “This will, in my opinion, eliminate the need for local fairness ordinances given that there is no longer a disputed issue as to whether or not prohibitions against discrimination based upon sexual orientation are within the purview of federal or state statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sex,” Moore wrote in an email.

GUTE: I’d like to see it. I’d like to see it brought before the commission and I’d like to see it in its entirety. I think our commission has been very inclusive in the past. We have gay employees, we have black employees. We are very in-tune with the Hispanic population here in Ashland and again with the Indian population here in Ashland. I have gay family members. We have a very vibrant human rights commission and as well as a ministerial association. I think we have a good record here.

CONTEXT: Again, Bostock v. Clayton County may already have members of the LGBTQIA-Plus community covered.

SPRIGGS: I think we should all be inclusive not as a matter of being a citizen, but as a matter of being a human being. We are all human beings. I’m not sure what the question was about safe spaces. I think all of Ashland should be safe anywhere for anybody. I think anyone one sitting up here would probably agree with that. We all need to feel safe. I would like to see legislation come up before the board. I would certainly be supportive of that, but I don’t know what safe space means. I want all of Ashland to be safe.

CONTEXT: A safe space isn’t just for physical safety, but an environment where a minority — whether it be an ethnic, religious, racial or sexual minority — can feel at ease without the expectations of the dominate society.

MEMMER: Well, as past president of the Ashland Area Board of Relators and as now the president elect of the Ashland Area Board of Realtors, one of the things we teach the realtors is ethics training. You learn — and I have taught these classes many times — you don’t see somebody for anything other than who they are as a person, not what their ethnicity is, makes no difference. And I train all my realtors that way. Why we would need safe spaces makes no sense to me. There’s no reason for the LGBTQ community to need to have anything different than anybody else. We should all be equal and that’s the way I will always look at it.

FACT CHECK: According to the Williams Institute of UCLA, which studies LGBTQIA-Plus issues, in Kentucky, gays, lesbians and transgender folks are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as heterosexuals and twice as likely to suffer from food insecurity. They are also more likely to have income less than $24,000 a year, per the institute. Kentucky ranks 43 out of 50 in terms of how many people identify as LGBTQIA-Plus. Looking at transgender outcomes, the U.S. Transgender Survey paints an even bleaker picture — 19% of the 6,450 respondents reported being homeless at some point, 19% reported being turned away from a house or apartment, 11% reported being evicted due to their identity and 41% reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives.

CLARK: Thanks. I’m processing everyone else’s answers to make sure I don’t necessarily repeat a whole lot. As a commissioner, I want to be an advocate for equality. Think that’s our job as a commission is to make sure this place is the best place that it can be for all the people who live here, no matter sexual preference, race, any of that. I have always said if there is something on our books that is unfair, please point it out. Please bring it to our attention so that we can fix it. I do not ever want to be seen as someone who does not think that all people are equal. Again, what Cheryl said, as a human being, we’re all humans. And we should be accepting of all humans. I can’t process any other emotion or answer to that.

THOMPSON: I grew up in Ashland when began what was called integration and I took some lessons away from that. And not that I’m seeing Ashland today as it was 40 years ago, there are some things that are persistent. We are such a homogenous community here that happens in terms of discrimination is very subtle. I think we just have to own it as a community. And commit ourselves as a community to treat everyone with respect and provide everyone with equal opportunity. Trust me, there are problems in our community and we need to address them.

CONTEXT: Ashland is 92.3% white, 2.4% Black, 3.1% mixed and 1.7% Latino, per the Census Bureau. Putting that into context, Kentucky is 84.3% white, 8.4% Black, 2% mixed and 3.8% Latino. The United States is 60.4% white, 13.4% Black, 2.7% mixed and 18.3% Latino.

HENRY: This is an area I’ve worked on most of my life, I’ve dedicated most of my life to. Thank you Gerald, thank you for your comments. Yes, there are problems all around us. There are not safe spaces for everyone. And even though we talk about being equal and fair, what does that actually mean? When we issues of biases, we’re all biased to some extent. When we sit down and think about it, obviously I’m the elephant in the room. I’m the only African American here. That tells you a story in itself. Is this a microcosm in our community? Is this the way Ashland looks? This is a question we could answer for hours. Thank you.

CONTEXT: At the time of the question and answer session, there were 18 people total at the Paramount. Of those 18 people, only one — Henry — is African American. The rest are white. According to the stats, for every one Black person, there are about 50 white people in Ashland. The largest group — mixed people — is about a 1-to-33 ratio. Adding those two together –— statistics show in Appalachia, Blacks account for the largest racial minority — it’s safe to say for every Black or mixed person in Ashland, there are 20 white people. That’s roughly the same ratio seen at the Paramount that night.

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