Voters closely following the mayor’s race likely have noticed Democrat Greg Fischer’s evolving position on the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project. Initially, he fully endorsed the project in its entirety and suggested the community wait for a final financial recommendation before “burning a lot of mental calories” on the issue.
After the bi-state authority touted a few unpopular tolling options — including putting fees on Spaghetti Junction — the Louisville businessman said the city needs a “plan B” if the behemoth public works project isn’t financially feasible.
A recent poll commissioned by WHAS and The Courier-Journal shows the mayoral race is still a statistical tie, which could explain why the Democratic nominee now is flirting with the idea of scaling back the project.
Three months ago, Republican Hal Heiner said the same thing when he argued tolling wasn’t part of the original plan. Now the Heiner campaign contends Fischer’s developing position on the bridges project is a way of playing catch up.
“I am glad to hear that Greg is once again following Hal’s lead, and it’s another example of why Greg isn’t ready to lead,” says Joe Burgan, Heiner’s campaign manager. “If Hal isn’t around for him to co-opt his policy, he doesn’t have any ideas, and that’s not the sign of a leader.”
When asked if the Democrat’s “plan B” remark indicates his support for the project is waning, Fischer campaign spokesman Chris Poynter responded via e-mail: “Greg supports the entire bridges project — both bridges.” The entire project entails building an East End bridge, a downtown bridge and re-configuring Spaghetti Junction.
In a recent poll by cn|2 Politics, however, more than 50 percent of Louisville voters said they support building only an East End bridge more than any other combination of the project. And some Fischer supporters believe the bridges project is becoming their candidate’s glaring weakness.
“I’ve done everything I can to encourage (Fischer) to emphasize that tolling ought to be on the East End bridge and that it ought to be used to build that bridge now,” says Metro Council President Tom Owen, D-8, who endorsed Fischer. “He needs to be much more clear and stringent in his statements that the East End bridge needs to be the immediate priority and that broad-based tolling should not be part of building it.”
The concern about Fischer’s bridges position was one of the reasons Owen recently reached out to former mayoral candidate Tyler Allen, a popular Democrat and co-founder of 8664, who is rumored to be leaning toward endorsing Heiner. The two met to discuss whom Allen will support; neither would confirm details of that conversation.
The council president believes Fischer has a better grasp of the community than his opponents, but admits his position on the bridges project doesn’t help him with voters.
“I think Mr. Heiner thus far appears to me to have a position on that issue that’s closer to mine,” Owen says. “Although Fischer is more nuanced, in this campaign it doesn’t need to be nuanced. It needs to be clear: East End bridge now.”
Responding to the growing anxiety over tolls, a group of 17 Metro Council members led by Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, drafted a resolution opposing fees on the city’s existing bridges and roads as a means to pay for the bridges project.
The non-binding measure says it is fundamentally wrong to begin tolling transportation infrastructure currently used by “hard-working citizens whose livelihood depends on their daily commute to their jobs,” and that the introduction of highway fees could threaten businesses and working families.
Last year, Ward-Pugh co-sponsored a request that public hearings concerning the bridges project be held in each district. The council ignored that and more or less silenced its own voice by voting to give Gov. Steve Beshear and Mayor Jerry Abramson the power to appoint members to the bi-state authority.
“I haven’t regretted anything more than that decision to give away our authority to an unelected appointing body,” Ward-Pugh says. “It has been the most egregious error that I believe this council has made in the past seven-and-a-half years. All we can do at this point is draft a non-binding, flimsy resolution stating our position on what the bi-state authority is considering when it should be us debating the different funding mechanisms.”
The ongoing legal battle between the city and an employee who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against his supervisors has taken a step in favor of Metro government.
Last week, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge James Shake denied an injunction barring the city from forcing Public Works employee Eric Garrett to take a psychiatric exam before returning to work. The four-page ruling said the mental evaluation order is not “purely retaliatory on its face,” adding that the case lacked sufficient evidence of any irreparable harm Garrett would suffer by taking the test.
Earlier this year, Garrett, who has been employed by the city since 2004, filed a retaliation lawsuit against Metro government alleging he was suspended for complaining about supposed mismanagement and financial waste in the department.
A few days after filing the suit, he received a notice from the city ordering him to take a psychiatric evaluation or face termination.
“Obviously, there is fear in taking this examination because the person the city has assigned to provide the examiner with information about Mr. Garrett — Public Works supervisor Betty Younis — is one of the people he named in the whistleblower suit,” says Shane Sidebottom, Garrett’s attorney. “It’s biased on its face, and we see it as playing with someone’s health records. If he applies for another job in the future this will be on his record. That’s a real problem.”
The decision on whether to appeal hasn’t been made, Sidebottom says, and his client is uncertain if he’ll undergo the mental health test.
Since April 2010, Garrett has been suspended indefinitely without pay after another Metro employee filed a complaint against him.
Last month, however, the state division of unemployment insurance ruled the city’s suspension was not backed by sufficient evidence and has since awarded Garrett his unemployment benefits.