Closing remarks, final city council meeting: “CITY OF BUCKHANNON – MAYOR’S STATEMENT
June 18, 2020
As we conclude this evening’s Council meeting, my last meeting as mayor, I want to thank our citizens for giving me the opportunity these past 50 months to help lead our City. This month of June for me is a bit like an ole rock band that’s performing its farewell tour. I’ve gotten to address three of our four utility boards in similar fashion as this evening reflecting upon our accomplishments & challenges, & next Thursday I’ll make my parting remarks before our Consolidated Public Works Board.
Those who know me best know that I’ve always admitted to being a pretty lousy politician. I never aspired to politics. Political correctness & telling people what they think they want to hear isn’t one of my character traits. You’re always going to know what I think with no sugar coating & minimal spin. That said, I have a slight bit of spin relative to our 2018 & 2020 city elections that I’d like to observe. With my exception- every single member of this Council was reelected during the past two years. How much more validating could our citizenry be regarding their critique as to where our City has been heading?
The past four plus years have been both challenging & rewarding. Let me revisit some of the most substantial challenges before reviewing our rewards. In mid May of 2016, I was charged with cleaning up the many messes created by the incompetency of the previous “acting” player at the helm. One of the darkest chapters in our City’s long history had to be tackled head-on. First & foremost, integrity at City Hall had to be restored in order that our citizenry could regain confidence in our operations.
Let there be no mincing of words- there was scandal, corruption, theft, bullying, & outstanding felony drug warrants all pending here when I was sworn in. Within three months, that criminal presence was entirely removed from this chamber. Soon thereafter, we welcomed Susan Aloi as our new city recorder & she was a refreshing improvement to our Council. Later we welcomed Colin Reger as City Recorder, & now Randy Sanders. By the way, if anything were to ever happen to Buckhannon’s mayor, Randy Sanders would be a terrific mayor.
City administrator Michael Doss’s final day was just three days after the May 2016 election. Some called for a new national search for his replacement. I rhetorically asked this Council who would train a new City administrator, knowing well the answer. Of course it would fall upon Amby Jenkins & Jerry Arnold. So- we did something unheard of, we installed an entirely new form of city management oversight through the director model whereby Amby & Jerry “direct” virtually all activities in finance, administration, & public works. What a success that model has proven to be for Buckhannon.
I think Morgantown has had about six city managers in a dozen years- & that entire city manager model seems to me to be a fractured one. The average tenure of a city manager is often only three or so years. Just when a person comes to learn the job, they are floating resumes to move on to bigger & greener pastures. It’s the nature of that beast. I cannot say enough about the leadership we have realized with Amby Jenkins, the “much older” sister I never had, & Jerry Arnold, my brother. I admire, respect, & love you both so much. You have done so much for our town that has been unheralded. We all shall be forever indebted to you both for you amazing service to Buckhannon. I want to reiterate how delicate, how fragile competency & integrity are. Our City is blessed to champion both of those elements throughout our organization right now.
Another great opportunity followed with the previous, short-term city attorney from Huntington resigning, & we had the chance to land Tom O’Neill as our new legal counselor. Again- we hired a guy who wasn’t three hours away, who lived just around the corner, & who had earlier served as a city councilor & already knew our organization very well. Tom hit the ground running & another huge improvement to our City team & operation was realized.
Then it was time to correct cronyism in our boards, commissions, councils, & committees. One of the first things we undertook in 2016 was to improve upon the competency of ALL of our boards, councils, & commissions. The previous “acting” administration had engaged in cronyism in its ugliest form. To be clear- cronyism is defined as “the appointment of friends & associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications.”
To Mayor elect Skinner- & this won’t be the last time you hear me offer this unsolicited advice Robbie- avoid cronyism at all cost. First & foremost, keep our organization competent! The dividends that competency pays will be realized by our community for decades to come. Buckhannon has never been more competent than what it is right now. We appointed new members to our water & waste collection boards. We gutted the planning commission appointing Curtis Wilkerson, Susan Aloi, Rich Clemens, CJ Rylands, Jack Reger, & Matt Kerner.
With holdover members Vincent Smith, Dean Everett, & Catherine Cuppari, in short order we realized an excellent 2025 comprehensive plan. We reformed our Zoning Board of Appeals. We strengthened a number of our other boards & commissions with stellar members. Some of those replacement moves weren’t popular with those removed & I’ve heard about it from them for years now on social media, but this organization has thrived from effecting those changes that have vastly improved our competency.
While chairing our utility boards, & especially our Water & Sanitary boards, I repeatedly complained about our “partnering” public service districts not maintaining & sharing agendas & meeting minutes. While it’s taken literally years to achieve that compliance, we now have 100% psd sharing of those agendas & minutes. It’s imperative that we know the intentions of those who will be counting upon our distribution of water & collection & treatment of sewage. With sewage we continue to expose the huge infiltration & inflow issues with the Tennerton Public Service District, & with water we continue to observe the immense water loss where as much as a half gallon of treated, potable water for every gallon delivered is allowed to seep into the ground particularly with the Hodgesville Public Service District. This waste has to be policed & the psds have to do a much better job at fixing these leaks.
Some thought I was crazy when I advanced the notion of hiring a fulltime, dedicated grant researcher/writer who would double as our information facilitator. What an investment we realized with the hiring of Callie Cronin-Sams. During the past four years, our City has realized well more than four million dollars in grant funding. Callie further has made us more information sharing & transparent than we’ve ever been before.
I butted heads with some members of the Knights of Pythias. They sought me out to discuss our City’s interest in acquiring their property to build our new multi-purpose building at Stockert. There were a couple of different appraisals generated. We ended up offering them the high appraisal value & then some, yet the membership insisted on holding out for payment about double that high appraised value. We’ve tried to get them back to the negotiation table for months now without success. That property is indispensable to our development of the much needed space for our B-U children at Stockert. We have to acquire it. If the Knights won’t negotiate, our City needs to proceed through eminent domain.
Looking back at it all, I don’t think that anything we undertook was more important than to address the revenue needs of our City. This was accomplished through two initiatives. First, we fast-tracked a two-phase sewer rate increase to provide the much needed resources for our sewer operations to be able to discharge all of our Board’s important functions & thrive. Still, even after the rate increases, our sewer rates currently rank #150 out of 318 providers, or at the 46.6% level in our entire State of West Virginia. After years of struggling to establish any reserve fund, our sewer reserve now exceeds the State required 12.5% of our annual operating revenues. Simply stated, we now are prepared for sewer emergencies, & we have met the State’s mandate.
Second, the adoption last year of the one percent sales tax will end the stagnation with our general fund, & permit us to advance city-wide projects in a far more expedient manner. Our finances are in terrific shape, with four years of perfect audits.
After some rancor with the County Commission & our constant antagonist, the Tennerton Public Service District, we protected & solidified our utility base by expanding our delivery of sewer to Route 33 West on both the north & south side, & I would add water on the south side of Route 33 West. It’s not easy taking a tough stance- but it’s in the best interest of our organization to do exactly that on occasion. When it would have been easy to cave, we rose & met the challenges from those who we would’ve preferred to have identified as allies & partners.
My mantra during my entire time as mayor has been “We’re all in it together.” I repeatedly have emphasized that ALL means ALL. Inclusivity is the morally correct thing to strive for & try to implement. We have more females in our employ right now than ever before in our City’s history. In addition to Amby Jenkins’ ascension to being our director of finance & administration, we hired Callie Cronin-Sams as our grants & information officer, Dixie Green as our horticulturist, & Angel McCauley as one of our newer police officers. Add in our excellent City Hall & Stockert staffs, & it’s difficult to imagine where our organization would be without our amazing female employees. I’d be lost without Teresa Summers by the way. Through our Diversity Appreciation Coalition we have recognized great women from our community’s past, Binky Poundstone, Jean Lee Latham, Joyce Stockert, & Mary Gibson. Ladies- we appreciate you!
I’ve been criticized for speaking up for blacks after the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, & following the George Floyd killing last month. I advanced protection from discrimination for members of our LGBTQ community. It’s been nearly 18 months since Ordinance 434 narrowly failed before this body. I said then that our Constitution embracing equal protection & due process along with federal statutes accorded protections to our LGBTQ citizens, & how vindicating it was to read the opinions of Chief Justice John Roberts & Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch earlier this week declaring exactly that. The United States Supreme Court in sweeping fashion essentially passed our Buckhannon ordinance in the Bostock, Zarda, & Stephens’ cases that were handed down on June 15.
I’ve taken up for addicts & substance abusers, repeatedly championing the extending of second, third, & more chances for those in recovery. There are many lost souls out there worthy of saving, & if we provide the support, many of those struggling with drugs or alcohol today can be returned to being productive citizens tomorrow. Don’t tell me that “those people deserve to die.”
There were doubters when we advanced pursuing full, professional accreditation for both our police & fire departments. Our fire chief before Chief Kimble was lukewarm at best about pursuing CFAI accreditation. Chief Kimble was onboard. Police Chief Gregory has performed excellently to put our police department on the brink of full, professional accreditation through CALEA. We’ve already reaped huge dividends from these pursuits. Our police & fire departments are both better than they’ve ever been before as a result of pursuing professional accreditation.
Across the board, our supervisors excel in leading their respective departments. We’re highly competent with Kelly Arnold in water, Buck Samples in sewer, Jeff Wamsley at waste collection, Brad Hawkins in streets & parks, & Debora Brockleman at Stockert Youth & Community Center.
Our Colonial Theatre is about 75% completed. We’ve raised nearly a half million dollars toward our new Stockert building. Our dog park is terrific. The improvements on Spring Street, Trader’s Alley, & Milkman Lane, along with the new projects in Jawbone Park make our downtown all of the more appealing.
We’ve welcomed many new businesses to our City with Harbor Freight, Citizens Bank, Community Care, Orion Strategies, & the list goes on & on.
Some have asserted that our City government acted less than transparently during the past four plus years. The truth of the matter is- our organization has never acted more transparently & more ethically than it has since May of 2016. Some have claimed we moved too quickly on some matters. Well, it’s true that I’ve never been a “kick the can down the road” kind of guy. We have acted decisively but thoroughly as a Council. I have been but one vote on this Council. I appreciate all of my colleagues who have supported our many positive initiatives. I will miss my camaraderie with all of our Council members, but especially CJ, Mary, & Randy. We have assembled a really good team. Jack Reger will be a quality addition to this Council.
Some folks have claimed we didn’t realize any improvements while wasting time on recognizing people. I don’t know what those folks are smoking. We in fact recognized excellence & good service from our community members at every turn. We honored many celebrities from our community’s colorful past. There are still many more to recognize including Garland West, Wolfgang Flor, Steve Coonts, Jayne Anne Phillips, Breece D’J Pancake, Greasy Neale, Cliff Battles, & others.
I would be remiss if I failed to observe the passing of several of our former key City players during the past four years- Frank Williams, Harley Brown, Jim Knorr, & Matt Hymes. So many of us dearly loved Harley & Matt especially. I have had my own personal challenges during the past four years with my dad’s passing in August of 2018, my son’s past struggles with substance abuse- doing great now though, my divorce last year from Cathy- my mom aside- the best lady I’ve ever known. But- the past four years did allow me to increase my monkey collection from five to seven as Kissy Kessy & Seesaw Man joined Blondieboy, Chunkamonk, Gianna, A-Dave, & Braybray. I’m no different than anyone else- my family means everything to me, & I like to think that some of the improvements we’ve realized here were inspired by knowing that they too- would benefit from them.
It has been my great honor & privilege to serve as your mayor these past 50 months. I can tell you without a stutter or a stammer that I have given the job all I had. One of the lyrics in Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” goes- “regrets… I’ve had a few, but then again- too few to mention.” My regrets would be not breaking ground yet on our new Stockert Building, not being successful yet with our AML (Abandoned Mine Land) grant to greatly extend our river walk trail, & not having yet completed our Colonial Theatre. Mr. Skinner- those are your projects to complete. I will help anyway I can.
As I stated during my last Water Board meeting last week & during the Sanitary Board earlier today- I hearken back to my late dad’s sage advice- “always leave things in better shape than what you found them.” While self-objectivity is a difficult notion, I offer the assertion that our City- is in far better shape than it was in May of 2016. Council & folks of Buckhannon- please keep up your good work.
Finally, & I’ve said this before- of all of the attributes that we may manifest as human beings, I believe the most important one is the virtue of kindness. Please care about & be kind to each other. We truly are ALL in THIS together- thanks for attending our meeting this evening. Council will greet you next time on July 2.”