In-Depth: Lexington as Task Force City

Dec 22, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. – In his first year as Mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray has started several initiatives and projects covering a variety of topics, including public safety and long term development.

A tool Gray often uses to tackle these issues is the task force: a group of people asked to come up with solutions or recommendations. Sometimes that work can take a few weeks, sometimes a few years. Reporter Brenna Angel sat down with the mayor to discuss his reasoning for using task forces and their effectiveness.

How many task forces does the city of Lexington need? Based on some recent announcements coming out of City Hall, it seems like a lot.

"Today I'm announcing the formation of the Arena, Arts, and Entertainment District Task Force."

"This Graffiti Task Force is an example of the great work "

"An important part of the task force was to actually put "

"Today I'm creating the task force on pension reform to recommend ways the city can address this issue."

Those announcements covered the Rupp Arena task force, the graffiti task force, the violent crimes task force, and the pension reform task force. There are also separate task forces for affordable housing, public safety, waste management, health & wellness, itinerant merchants, and the Charles Young Community Center. Ten task forces that were created or issued reports this year.

"And there was a purchasing and procurement task force," says Gray. "It was the last task force that I appointed as Vice Mayor."

Make that 11 task forces. Not all of them were created by Gray, and some are carry-overs from the Newberry administration. Gray says it's an effective structure for problem solving and bringing people together who volunteer their time have different points of view.

"When it escalates, when the tension on the problem escalates, we say this may be the structure we need. A task force is the way to get our arms around it."

"Task forces aren't studied very widely. There's not much literature on this," says Dr. Edward Jennings, Professor of Public Policy Administration and Political Science at the University of Kentucky.

Jennings says it's difficult to gauge how Lexington's use of task forces compares with other cities, but the model has been around for decades and is utilized at all levels of government. He says there are many positive functions of task forces, but the term can carry a negative connotation as well.

"It can serve that function for elected officials of delaying tough decisions, side-stepping difficult issues. And that's, in the minds of many people, the first perception when they hear that there's going to be a commission or a task force or something like that. Well, here's another way to avoid dealing with the problem.'"

Mayor Gray recognizes that potential perception, but says the days and weeks of working on and debating all sides of an issue will result in better outcomes than a process that is rushed.

Ultimately, task forces are asked to issue to a set of recommendations or proposals. It's then up to the Council and administration to make a decision on implementation.

"Is it only effective if all of its recommendations are embraced and we proceed with them? No. I think it's effective if some of them are."

Gray says task forces like the ones focused on a redesigned Rupp Arena and management of the detention center will encourage a new way of thinking for Lexington. As the city deals with future issues and problems, it's likely more task forces will be created, although Gray says he may have to change up the language to something like ad hoc committee or working group. Either way, you'll know what he means.