Lexington Meta 4: Things that make you go ‘Hmm’

The duality of Wu

Previously, in Lexington Meta’s inaugural issue, I wrote about Lexington’s new Vice Mayor Dan Wu. Was he in over his head, as some City Hall whispers said? Was he shaping up to be the progressive agent of change many voters saw him as? Or would he be another fence-sitting dud on the Council, just keeping the Vice Mayor’s chair lukewarm for a few years until his inevitable run for Mayor?

In the weeks since, Wu has been cautious. With his public statements mostly limited to social media updates on his wardrobe, Wu is refusing to tip his hand just yet and reveal how he’ll actually govern. Even the Council Budget Retreat, where a $45M shortfall was announced (more on that later this week), came and went without a substantive update from our Honorable Vice Mayor.

However, just because Wu isn’t sharing his actions in places where people will actually notice, that doesn’t mean he isn’t leaving a trail of tea leaves to read into.

At the 1/31 Council Work Session, Vice Mayor Dan Wu made some appointments to a couple committees. His inexperience showed at first when he needed Mayor Gorton’s help to properly introduce his motion, but, to be fair, Wu previously ditched former Vice Mayor Steve Kay’s experienced aide in favor of bringing on a newbie who volunteered on his campaign, so it’s understandable that his office is still learning the procedural ropes.

Wu reappointed some Council Members to their old positions on a standing transportation committee and also appointed a couple new faces to the Infill and Redevelopment Steering Committee. To the casual observer, this is pretty mundane activity, but if you know what you’re looking for, little moments like these, buried away at the tail end of a rushed 30-minute Work Session, can tell you way more about a politician and who they serve than any public statement or social media post can.

Wu appointed Nachie Braga and Phil Holoubek to the Infill and Redevelopment Steering Committee (IRSC). Now, if you’re a normal human, you’re surely asking yourself “WTF is that??” and that’s understandable. The IRSC is a committee chaired by the Vice Mayor; according to LFUCG, it was formed to “monitor the progress of infill and redevelopment initiatives and support new ones, as well as, to review policies and procedures of different arms of the local government and other governmental agencies related to infill and redevelopment.” For example, one of their recent meetings covered how to develop the 200 block of Waller Avenue by UK. It’s pretty quiet, unglamorous work, but the committee wields a lot of soft power when it comes to what gets built and how in Lexington.

Other members of the committee include: 

  • Dennis Anderson of Anderson Communities, one of Lexington’s most prominent landlords; 
  • Brittany Roethemeier, Director of horse industry lobbying group Fayette Alliance; 
  • Ed Trammell of LexPark; 
  • Fayette PVA David O’Neill; 
  • NoLi CDC Co-founder/CivicLex Director Richard Young

With plenty of prominent local figures already on the committee, it’s worth examining Wu’s two new appointees to see what constituencies they will serve.

The ecologist

Wu appointee Nachie Braga is an ecologist, award-winning environmental educator, and owner/operator of GeoMancer Permaculture. One of his new initiatives got a shoutout in the most recent CivicLex newsletter:

The Water Quality Fees Board will hold a special meeting this Thursday to vote on a proposal to add a Tree Canopy scoring component to the Infrastructure Stormwater Quality Projects Incentive Grants.

This grant is available to churches, businesses, and nonprofits that pay the Water Quality Fee to develop infrastructure projects that improve water quality, with an emphasis on reducing impervious surfaces such as parking lots, concrete structures, etc.

This proposal, brought to the board by local permaculture designer Nachie Braga, would add a scoring metric for Tree Canopies to the grant program, allowing projects to score higher if they enhance tree canopies in the project area.

The special Water Quality Fees Board meeting will be Thursday, February 16th at 9am at 125 Lisle Industrial Avenue.

CivicLex Weekly Newsletter – Week of February 13th, 2023
Dan Wu appointee Nachie Braga is an award-winning environmental educator and ecologist. (KAEE)

If you poke around on GeoMancer’s page for a bit, you’ll discover that Braga is a consistent advocate for sustainability, “specializing in urban ecology and watershed restoration.” He’s frequently out in the field floating new “outside-the-box” ideas like the addition of a Tree Canopy scoring criteria for stormwater grants that CivicLex highlighted.

This is the attitude and approach many Wu voters expected him to bring to City Hall: While most of us have no idea what the hell a stormwater grant is, let alone what the scoring criteria are and why it matters, Braga not only understands it, but came up with a way to make it better and took the initiative to go pitch it to a city board most of us have never even heard of.

The entrepreneur

In an apparent attempt to offset Braga, Wu also appointed Phil Holoubek to the IRSC. Holoubek is listed as “founder, President and CEO of Lexington’s Real Estate Company” (LRC) as well as a senior partner in Edelen Ventures, the politically-connected company behind the big “Edelen Renewables” sign downtown.

The “Edelen Renewables Building” in downtown Lexington, Ky. Dan Wu appointee Phil Holoubek is a Senior Partner in the parent company. (Google)

Lots of moving parts around Edelen Renewables, but by all appearances it’s a company started by Steve Beshear’s former chief of staff Adam Edelen to gobble up government solar contracts.

It’s not clear how Holoubek managed to get some skin in the solar game, but his ties to the traditional real estate industry are pretty cut and dry as president and CEO of LRC. If Wu ever does make a public statement on Holoubek’s appointment, expect him to focus on the solar aspect of his background and bill him as a sort of sustainability expert.

Despite Holoubek’s financial connections to the renewable industry, the difference between him and Braga is night and day–Braga appears to be actually out doing the work of sustainability while Holoubek is a real estate guy who invested in a politically connected solar company with their name on the side of a building. It’s a classic case of the practical vs the performative.

Speaking of performative, if you follow Dan Wu on social media, you’ll recognize that he really wants people to know that he opposes SB 150, a recently proposed “anti-woke” bill that opponents say would negatively effect LGBTQ youth in Kentucky. The bill was introduced by Max Wise, who is Kelly Craft’s running mate.

While I do believe that Wu is sincerely opposed to SB 150, the fact that he just appointed Holoubek, a $500-level Kelly Craft donor, to a powerful municipal committee doesn’t exactly help his credibility there.

Dan Wu appointee Phil Holoubek recently donated $500 to GOP gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft. (KREF)
Max Wise, the running mate of Kelly Craft, recently introduced “anti-woke” legislation that opponents say would be harmful to LGBTQ youth. $500-level Craft donor Paul Holoubek was recently appointed to Lexington’s Infill & Redevelopment Steering Committee by Vice Mayor Dan Wu. (LRC)


Tenants’ Bill of Rights Gutted

Many expected the Tenants’ Bill of Rights to get more traction once the new Urban County Council took office. The common perception was that the incoming Council was more progressive and would get the legislation, originally sponsored by outgoing CMs David Kloiber and Richard Moloney, over the finish line.

Those dreams were dashed when Dan Wu announced in a late January media interview that the new Council would be breaking up the Tenants’ Bill of Rights. This is a common trick used by politicians to quietly kill or dilute legislation they (or their backers) do not want to see passed. 

I immediately reached out to Dan Wu via email when I read the interview to see what was going on. Wu did not respond to my email, so I sat down to write up a column about the developments. But first, as a courtesy, I did reach out to him one more time via direct message. I described the interview I read and the overview of the column I was planning to write. I told him to please let me know if anything seemed off or misrepresented.

Wu responded immediately and gave a long and often rambling response. But just as quickly, he tried to walk it back and asked for the conversation to be off the record. I didn’t have any reason not to take him at his word at the time, so I agreed.

Now, here’s where we get into some journalism ethics. Dan Wu is a very media savvy character. He’s done network TV, countless interviews with the Herald-Leader and other publications when he was a restaurant owner, and ran a robust, professional campaign where he was successfully elected Vice Mayor. I, on the other hand am an amateur citizen journalist. Wu knows (or should know) that when a politician or other public figure talks to the media, it’s considered on the record unless noted by the interviewee IN ADVANCE.

MediaBistro, an industry blog, puts it like this:

The generally accepted rule is that off the record and on background must be invoked in advance. So if, for example, George W. Bush says to you, “Let’s go off the record here—I really did make up all that stuff about WMD in Iraq,” you can’t quote him on that. But if he says, “I really did make up all that stuff about WMD in Iraq—wait, that was off the record,” you’re well within your rights to use it.

What Are the Rules About ‘Off the Record’? Learn to navigate the tricky terrain of on and off the record, MediaBistro

So, given that Wu did not ask to be off the record until he made his statement, here’s what I can now ethically share with you that Wu said about the Tenants’ Bill of Rights back in January:

This is a much longer and nuanced conversation. I had told Beau and others from KY tenants to expect the piecemeal approach. It shouldn’t be a surprise to them at all. In fact Beau and the leadership understand our approach and are willing to work with us. 

Council and legislation are about process. Our goal is to pass substantive change that will be enforceable, fundable, and sustainable. We are beginning work On several pieces of it now, including right to counsel, board seats, and source of income discrimination.

Our committees just elected chairs on Tuesday so in the coming committee meetings you will see action. I understand the sense of urgency that advocates have on this issue and I’m on board with strengthening tenant protections.

I don’t believe we are “diluting” or “watering down” the TBOR. We are simplying first doing what is most doable.

I also take issue with the characterization that I’m governing more “conservatively.” I ran a nonpartisan campaign and I plan to do this job in a nonpartisan way.

I am not an ideologue, I’m a pragmatist that has to work with 15 other CMs and a mayor of differing political leanings and personalities.

Vice Mayor Dan Wu, 1/20 direct message conversation with The Lexington Times

At this point in the conversation, Wu asked to go off the record, so I can’t report on the remainder of what he said.

I reached out to KY Tenants, and a representative of theirs’ gave the following statement: 

We would prefer Council pass it all at once–each part is urgent, timely, and reasonable–but it does look like they’re going to break it up into parts, so we will show up in support of each part as it gets heard and continue to apply pressure until it all gets passed.

We worry that breaking it up into parts means that they will move more slowly on the parts where they fear they will get backlash–for example, a landlord registry, or protections for people with eviction histories or past convictions in the housing search. But those bold measures that protect our most vulnerable are exactly the things we should be prioritizing. Every part of the Tenants’ Bill of Rights need to be passed, and we’ll fight to make sure that happens.

KY Tenants 1/24 statement on Tenants’ Bill of Rights being broken up.

A few days ago, I hadn’t heard much, so I followed up with KY Tenants about the progress of the Tenants’ Bill of Rights.

Some parts of it have been referred. Vice Mayor Wu referred right to counsel and eviction diversion to Social Services and Public Safety, and Councilmember Lynch referred tenant seats on boards and commissions to General Government and Planning.

We are still waiting for councilmembers to refer anti-discrimination protections and the landlord registry.

The Mayor’s administration made a funding commitment for a pilot Right to Counsel program–there’s an RFP coming out for it soon, so there should be updates coming on that before long.

KY Tenants 2/9 statement on the progress of the Tenants’ Bill of Rights

For those keeping score at home, there are four key provision of the Tenants’ Bill of Rights. By only introducing two of the components, Wu and Council have effectively stripped out the other two provisions–anti-discrimination protections and the creation of a landlord registry.

Anti-discrimination protections were previously passed in Louisville in 2020 and protect renters against what advocates describe as “21st century discrimination.” For example, Lexington landlords are currently able to discriminate against marginalized people by refusing to rent to tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers. Because source of income is not a legally protected class here, landlords can use it as an excuse to deny rental applications. The powerful real estate industry and wealthy real estate investors have been most outspoken against this provision, so it’s not particularly surprising this one got axed.

The landlord registry is the second most controversial proposal in the Tenants’ Bill of Rights. It would create a public database of local landlords that tenants could use to screen properties and owners before they rent, similar to the way landlords screen tenants. It would include mundane, but helpful, information like how many properties they own and past code enforcement violations. As you can imagine, many of the local slumlord-type property owners oppose this provision because it would introduce a new layer of accountability to their industry.


Watching the tea leaves

While it’s certainly disheartening to analyze them, the tea leaves of local politics are always changing. Special interests inevitably approach new elected officials, and real estate folks are some of the savviest around. Wu and the rest of the new Council Members appear to have been on the receiving end of at least one, but probably more, of these types of visits.

But I’m not giving up hope for a progressive new Council just yet–Braga’s appointment to ISRC is inspiring, despite it being offset with an amorphous industry insider; and despite concerning delays, the other important pieces of the Tenants’ Bill of Rights could still be passed if advocates continue to apply pressure to Council.

With Wu still carefully straddling the fence, we’ll all have to keep watching the tea leaves until he finally tips one way or the other.

Dan Wu did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lexington Meta is a weekly column that examines happenings and events that may have gone unnoticed in Lexington. If you have a suggestion for a future column, please email editor@lexingtonky.news.