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The Gadfly Versus the Mayor - The Sequel

02.21.12 03:44 PM – Andy McDonald
Those who attended the meeting or watched it on television knew the mayor of Berea was irritated.
After the fact, he told people he didn’t mind people raising issues in council meetings. But in private, the mayor grumbled that the council member in question was grandstanding - that he was raising certain policy issues to make waves and score political points. The council member might have said his main objective was the proper airing public concerns. The mayor thought differently. He called it “Stirring up s***t.”

That was a long time ago, back when Steve Connelly was a councilmember. It was the 1990s. Mayor Clifford Kerby was the city’s chief executive, and he didn’t always appreciate Connelly’s manner of making waves.

Today there’s still a battle between the city’s establishment and a couple of renegades, only the former renegade and populist is now mayor – the very symbol Berea’s political establishment.

Councilman Ronnie Terrill Sr., meanwhile, finds himself in the role Connelly used to occupy – that of gadfly and occasional devil’s advocate. Much has changed, but it also appears that much has stayed the same.

Both Mayor Kerby and Mayor Connelly presided over cities that are in superb financial shape – far better condition than other municipalities around the Commonwealth. With Kerby, I sometimes got the feeling that his attitude regarding Connelly was, “Things are going well. Why is he rocking my boat?” More to the point, perhaps, “Why is he stirring up s**t?”

I’ve wondered if the same thing has occurred to Connelly with regard to Terrill. Even with a severe recession, Connelly presides over a city that is in a great financial position while other local governments are deeply in the red. On paper, things are great. As such, Mayor Connelly might wonder: “What is there to complain about?”

But there are a couple of distinctions between Kerby and Connelly that I think have made the latter more vulnerable to criticism. First, the times are different. During Kerby’s tenure, people were more apt to trust government. Moreover, from a political standpoint, Connelly is bolder than Kerby. He’s willing to take bigger risks if he thinks a policy is the right course. Kerby’s style was more conservative. He didn’t mind waiting to see where the cards fell before committing to something big. The Artisan Center is a good example.

Under Kerby, the chicken ordinance proposal would have been buried so deeply in Randy Stone’s files that archeologists wouldn’t have unearthed it for another three or four thousand years. And the Human Rights Commission? Forget about it. It’s a topic that would have been considered so politically volatile that it wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

In contrast, Connelly’s management style brings to mind a Chinese saying: The bird that flies at the front of the formation is the one hunters shoot for. Connelly draws fire precisely because he gets ahead of his constituents, and in this current anti-government climate, the mayor’s long term vision for Berea makes him an obvious target for dissidents. The failed purchase of the Parker Seal building comes to mind.

But there’s another element of the political atmosphere that’s at play. Maybe it’s about class – townies versus eggheads. Mayor Kerby was highly accomplished, he had very refined tastes, yet Kerby’s persona conveyed a country doctor’s common touch that kept him popular with “regular folks.” Back then, I think it’s fair to say Connelly was well liked by the college set; he was the thoughtful outsider looking in who was willing to promote new ideas.

Now things have been turned upside down. The outsider then (Connelly) is perceived as the insider, and townies who used to be loyal to Kerby don’t understand some of the new ideas being promoted. They feel alienated by decisions relating to the city’s establishment of a Human Rights Commission, or Berea’s heavy investment in tourism. Now it’s the townies, not college folk, who feel they are on the outside looking in. And like Connelly did so many years ago, Terrill is emerging as the voice of dissent.

Terrill should enjoy it while it lasts; that is, until people start viewing him as the insider.

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