Mayor-elect John Royalty gets down to business

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By Randy Patrick

He won’t take office until Tuesday, but John Royalty has been preparing to be Bardstown’s new mayor for more than a month.

“I can’t wait,” he said in an interview last week. “I already started work Nov. 17, having meetings with department heads …” and talking with city employees and other council members, he said.

Royalty, a businessman, former police officer and five-term councilman, said he’s familiar with the workings of city government and many of the people who run it, and he’s looking forward to leading.

The impression he’s gotten from talking with other leaders is that, most are also looking forward to the changes he says he’ll bring, although some are worried.

“I’ve talked to the other council members, and they all agreed — we’ve talked about this for years — that either me or another council member was going to get in this position, and we were going to make those changes,” he said.

“Those changes,” he said, include a more open, collaborative and business-like approach to governing.

“It’s government, but you have to look at it like a business,” he said.

As an example, he mentioned that earlier this year, the electrical department wanted to buy a “digger truck” for $250,000, but he had done some research and convinced the council he could repair the one the city has for $6,800.

“I’m gonna watch the funds,” he said. “If a department head needs something, they’re going to have to explain it why.”

Royalty says he doesn’t anticipate reducing the city’s $46 million annual spending, but he has made it clear over the past two years he’s concerned about the budget’s growth. He thinks the city government can be more frugal.

However, he said, he has given some thought to creative ways of raising more revenue, including requiring renters to pay a share of property taxes and removing the income cap on the occupational license fee to make it more fair and progressive.

He also believes government can be more transparent.

Royalty has been one of Mayor Bill Sheckles’ harshest critics over what he considers the outgoing mayor’s autocratic style of executive leadership. He said he would be more like two former mayors, Dixie Hibbs and Dick Heaton.

Heaton, in particular, kept the council members informed of everything he was doing and involved them every step of the way, he said.

He and Sheckles have also clashed over how City Council meetings are run. As the person who presides over the meetings, Sheckles believes it’s the mayor’s responsibility to see that they’re orderly and not too long, and that citizens have their say without being allowed to, as he puts it, “take over” the meetings. Royalty and his ally, Councilman Tommy Reed, have said they think Sheckles stifles discussion, not only by the townspeople, but even by council members themselves.

“Everyone has to understand that it’s not the mayor’s meeting, it’s the council’s meeting,” he said. “The mayor moves the meeting along, but it’s the council’s decision.”

One of the first things he wants to do as mayor, he said, is have a training session on how public meetings should be conducted.

He said he wants to be more accountable to the people.

“City Hall is theirs,” he said. “We work for the people, and I think that’s been lost.”

Although he has talked about change, he said, those who administer city government don’t need to be concerned about him coming in and making sweeping personnel changes.

“I agree with Bill (Sheckles) on that — we’ve got good employees,” he said, but added that “there are going to be some changes …”

One of his top priorities, Royalty said, will be studying the options for a new water supply. The city needs a more adequate body of water than Sympson Lake to accommodate growth and especially industrial development, he said.

Royalty wants to get more big factories to locate in Bardstown so that its residents don’t have to drive to Louisville, Elizabethtown or Frankfort to find work, he said.

However, if the city provides incentives for those businesses to locate here, he wants assurances that they will stay for many years, not leave town after a short time. He mentioned Tower Automotive as an example of the kind of company he would like to see more of in Bardstown.

The mayor-elect said another priority will be making changes to joint funding and operation of city and county services such as the parks and recreation program, 911 dispatching and the combined fire service, which is a hybrid of a taxpayer-funded city department and a user-fee funded, semi-autonomous corporation.

“We’ve got to rework our decision-making process,” he said. “The inter-local agreements are all being renegotiated.”

Royalty also wants to look at the council’s role in the planning and zoning process and doesn’t buy into the argument that it’s insulated from politics. Appointment of its members is a political process, he said, and the City Council has the final say in city decisions.

In the aftermath of race-related protests against police actions in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., Royalty has said he doesn’t think the Bardstown Police Department needs additional “sensitivity training” or that it has any problem with racial profiling.

“I think it’s fine here,” he said regarding race relations. “I think there’s problems with individuals who want to make it” a problem.

Royalty said he doesn’t like affirmative action and color, gender and age shouldn’t be considered in hiring city employees.

“I’ve been a victim of reverse discrimination,” he said.

In the 1980s, he said, he couldn’t get a job with the Kentucky State Police or the Louisville or Jefferson County police departments because he wasn’t a minority.

As mayor, Royalty said he will also be nonpartisan. Party affiliation should play no role in the mayor’s office, he said.

“I’ve been in public service all my life. What I bring to the city is business common sense and the ability to actually serve and work for the people,” Royalty said. “I’m ready to get started.”