Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir offers interesting history, lessons in good government

November 10, 2015

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A big reason Lexington has prospered over the past 40 years is a gutsy decision by politicians and voters in the early 1970s to create a non-partisan merger of city and county governments.

As recounted in Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir, that process was mostly about people of different political persuasions putting the common good above their self-interest. But it also involved behind-the-scenes intrigue, courtroom fights and a mayoral election so close it was decided by a spider’s web.

“The Spider Election: The Dramatic Story of Lexington’s Closest Mayoral Election” (Amelia Press, $25) is now on sale at Fosterpettit.com. Pettit, who was city government’s last mayor and merged government’s first one, finished the manuscript shortly before his death last Nov. 22. He died at age 84 from injuries suffered in a boating accident.

Journalist Al Smith, who wrote the forword, and Pettit’s daughter-in-law, Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford, who helped edit the book and wrote an afterward, will sign copies Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort along with one of Pettit’s sons, Gregory, a public relations executive.

Pettit began working on the book in 2011 and interviewed 16 of his political supporters and opponents from that era. He got literary help from Blackford and Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, “so it wouldn’t read like a deposition,” Gregory Pettit said.

Pettit2Pettit, who descended from some of Lexington’s most prominent settlers, loved history and a good story. But he also wanted to write this book to remind people how beneficial merged government has been for Lexington, Gregory Pettit said.

The merger improved government services and saved taxpayers money by making their delivery more efficient. It all but eliminated party politics, and the system of 12 district Council members opened opportunities for more leadership diversity.

Lexington was the 19th place in the nation to merge city and county governments, and in the four decades since then that number has risen only to 43, including Louisville-Jefferson County in 2003. Despite the many advantages of merger, few cities and counties are willing to upset the political status-quo.

Lexington had a long history of partisan, machine politics. Then local legislators Bart Peak and Bill McCann got the General Assembly to pass a revolutionary bill in 1970 allowing Lexington and Fayette County voters to decide whether they wanted merged government.

Pettit, a Democratic lawyer, wrote that he and a group of pro-merger men tried to find a candidate to run for mayor in 1971 to pave the way for a referendum. When more than a dozen people turned them down, he agreed to do it on a slate with four City Council candidates.

The slate won, and they found an ally in Robert Stephens, the Fayette County judge, even though merger would cost them all their elected offices. When merger was put to voters in 1973, it won by a 70 percent margin.

But the main story in Pettit’s book is what happened next.

In the election to choose the first mayor of the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, Pettit was opposed by a popular judge, Jim Amato. On election night, Amato was declared the winner by 112 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.

But while pursuing a recount, Pettit’s campaign lawyer, George Mills, was alerted to an irregularity in the Aylesford precinct. A clerk’s error in loading ballot cards in the voting machine resulted in Pettit’s and Amato’s totals being switched. In reality, the courts determined, Pettit won by 54 votes.

One question for the court, though, was whether the voting machine had been tampered with after the election. Circuit Judge James Park Jr. determined that it had not, and his most conclusive evidence was an undisturbed spider’s web and egg sac inside the machine that any tampering would have destroyed.

When Pettit decided not to run for a second term in 1977, Amato was elected mayor.

Pettit’s tragic death turned this memoir into something of a memorial. I was honored to be among 14 friends, including Amato, asked to write tribute blurbs.

Pettit was a forward-looking statesman, and his low-key, inclusive leadership style set a tone for Lexington’s merged government that continues today.

In contrast to the ideology and partisan politics that have all but paralyzed state and national government, Lexington leaders debate issues on their merits and build sometimes-odd coalitions to get good things done. That may be Pettit’s greatest public legacy, and his book explains some fascinating stories behind how it happened.