Issue April 15, 2008

What about Bob? South End councilman Henderson draws controversy, and an electoral challenge

There’s no reason to think Bob Henderson isn’t sincere when he talks about his ambitious goal to clean up Dixie Highway. But he says it’s an uphill struggle, and he gets plenty of pushback.

The 68-year-old retiree is far from idle, spending much of his time cruising District 14 in his old white pickup truck, looking for trash and problems. In his truck are hundreds of pictures — mostly of trash or debris on private property.

The Metro Council’s 26 members include bankers, builders, teachers and nurses. And then there’s this guy, who spends his days wearing jeans, sneakers and a paranoid streak, trying to change minds and roadsides in Valley Station.

He takes me to a nearly abandoned trailer park and shows me a magnet for illegal dumping. There’s a four-foot high pile of wood chips just 50 feet from one of the few remaining trailers, and all sorts of wood and paper debris cluttering a hillside leading to a creek. Henderson says it goes on like this for miles.

His detractors say Henderson and the city’s Inspections, Permits and Licensing department are harassing property owners. Among the lightning rods of this criticism is IPL inspector Michael Baugh, who just happens to show up during my visit. I tell Baugh about the accusations from a neighborhood group, that he’s been accused of over-vigilance in his job, that one group claims he’s working on a quota system in order to collect more fines from citizens.

Baugh grins. He explains he’s writing about 15 inspection reports a day, opens his book up to prove it, and says that most are rectified by owners the next day. Violations like high grass and “wheels on dirt” are common here, and Baugh says only a few of the inspections he conducts result in fines.

Like Henderson, he shrugs off the criticism as part of the job.
Henderson runs into lots of opposition on Dixie Highway, so much that he’s attracted four Democrats, two Republicans and a bait-store owner running as an independent, all of whom want his job council.

“It’s election time and they’re all out to get old Bob,” Henderson says, the first of several references he’ll make to enemies he thinks are out to remove him from office. “They’re doing what they can to get me out of here because some people don’t want to change.”

Among his vocal opponents is developer Chris Thieneman, who says he’s backing one candidate from each party in the May 20 primary — Democrat Ed Springston and Republican Bob Heuglin, with whom Thieneman does business. Thieneman, who is on the ballot to run as a Republican for the 3rd U.S. Congressional District but hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll actively campaign, says he’d back either in the general election.

Thieneman owns property in the 12000 block of Dixie, where he worked to negotiate a deal to lease space to Cricket, the cell phone provider, for a tower. Henderson suggested other sites, and Thieneman says that blocked the deal. On Monday, he said he’d file suit over it this week. He accuses Henderson of having a financial motive in suggesting alternative sites.

Henderson doesn’t know about the potential suit until I tell him, to which he replies, “Anybody with money can file a lawsuit.” He says he thought the tower location was too close to Dixie.

One source of anti-Bob sentiment is Henderson’s positive relationship with Mayor Jerry Abramson, a subject that brings out the collective chip on the shoulder in South Louisville.
That feeds into the Metropolitan Sewer District issue. Many residents who oppose the mayor also harbor ill will toward MSD, criticizing, for example, recent mayor-endorsed rate hikes that don’t seem to benefit anyone near Dixie. Springston and Thieneman have said that Metro government’s plan to direct sewage from Jeffersontown, where the system is at capacity, out to Valley Station is another example of the area getting the short end of the stick, and of Henderson’s allegiance to Abramson. Henderson doesn’t see a problem with using the area’s excess sewage capacity.

You get the gist: Bob’s in step with the mayor, so it’s time to get rid of Bob. Add in several more players and you’ve got the potential for a dogfight. If there’s one thing that the folks involved in Southwest politics don’t lack, of course, it’s candor.

Springston claims that ethics charges against Henderson, recently dismissed by the Metro Ethics Commission after a three-year case that pertained to alleged sweetheart deals and political influence between Henderson and MSD, should have stuck, and hands me testimony from a connected court case to prove his point. Henderson, exonerated by the ethics commission, keeps extra copies of the order dismissing the complaint in the front seat of his truck.

Springston believes it will take about 1,200 votes to win the Democratic primary, and thinks he’s got the support to get that many. He estimates Henderson’s support at about 500 votes, followed closely by former attorney general candidate Jack D. Wood.

Michael Bowman, a 25-year-old political novice, is also on the ballot, as is retired electrical engineer John R. McCoy.  

Contact the writer at
citystrobe@leoweekly.com