By Kristy Robinson Horine
Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott turns the last page, reads the conclusion, and then closes the book and sighs. The book he’s just finished reading is a marketing textbook. The other textbooks he has recently read include economics, political science and administration. The subjects fall in line with his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Kentucky and his Masters of Public Administration degree from the University of Louisville.
Traugott is no longer in school. This Central Kentucky mayor reads textbooks because he sincerely likes them.
He fills the position of mayor because he sincerely loves his town.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about the city. I take the job very seriously,” Traugott admits.
He and his wife of 12 years, Laini, plan on being in Versailles for a long time.
“I’m going to live here. I want this community to be great for 50 years because I want to be here for 50 years. I want the place I live to be good. I want the place I raise my kids to be good.”
Traugott, who was born and raised in Woodford County, ran for and won a position on the Versailles City Council in 2012. On July 1, 2013, then-mayor Fred Siegelman, resigned to take a job in state government. Traugott had just turned 34 and was voted into the mayoral position. He ran unopposed in 2014 and kept the position.
“It was a blessing and a curse. I was prepared financially and organizationally for an opponent,” Traugott says. “Not having to spend money is not a bad thing, but I think the debate of ideas is a good thing and would have been helpful to the process and to me. I really enjoy civic involvement and the good thing is that you get ideas you aren’t exposed to, or different input from the council.”
The cycle of civic discourse is one that has appealed to Traugott since the early 90s, when he first felt the pull into political life.
The process of debate
In late fall of 1992, the eyes of the American public were glued to the screen as a series of presidential debates were aired on television. Ross Perot spoke of a world where Congress listened to the people and had the ability to stop the country’s financial bleed. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton spoke of people on Medicare making decisions between buying food or buying medicine and taxing the rich more and the middle class less. Then-President George H. Bush spoke about holding the line on Social Security and putting a cap on the growth of mandatory programs.
Back in Woodford County, Traugott was spellbound as he watched the debates among the rest of his eighth grade social studies class.
“Watching those debates inspired me to service. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true and it made me a Democrat in eighth grade,” Traugott says. “Governor Clinton was well spoken and seemed so sincere. From that point on, that’s all I wanted to do. Not necessarily run for office, but be in government.”
Just four years after graduating from high school, Traugott earned his place in Frankfort. He worked as legislative aide for House Majority Whip Joe Barrows, then as chief of staff under both House Majority Whip Rob Wilkey and Majority Caucus Chair Bob Damron. That led to his current position as senior policy advisor for House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
When the opportunity came to devote part of his time as Versailles Mayor, Traugott took the position seriously enough to request part-time work in Frankfort. Speaker Stumbo agreed, allowing Traugott more time to manage the city’s $17 million budget and to oversee daily operations as well as the city’s 90 employees.
Management of that importance requires a non-partisan approach, filtered with wisdom. After 14 years working in Frankfort, Traugott felt he had just the right skills needed to make his town the best town possible.
“Show some backbone, take a position, defend your position and do what you think is right. Don’t worry about the polls. Don’t worry about what the editorials are saying,” Traugott advises. “Just do what you’re supposed to do. To me, good policy is good politics.”
Sometimes, however, good policy means making hard decisions, even when others don’t agree.
In the face of opposition
Traugott knows that Woodford is one of the wealthiest counties in the state. Not so the city of Versailles. Recent growth opportunities for the city have required a delicate balance between resources and space and meeting the needs of residents who have been there for years.
Traugott is leading the city, which operates on a council-mayor form of government, through 60 written goals. Some of those are simple, like forming a youth council, administering a sidewalk maintenance program and re-erecting the Happy Chandler sign.
Other issues, however, are difficult and require that civic — and civil — discourse Traugott loves and respects.
For example, the city must determine the best course of action to solve storm water issues, work together to begin, and then complete, downtown revitalization and beautification efforts. Then there are the drug abuse issues, not too different from what the rest of the state is enduring.
“You not only have to be able to process the information, weigh the good and weigh the bad, you’ve got to be willing to make the decision — and that’s where a lot of elected officials fall short. Decisions are going to make people mad and you’ve got to be willing to do it,” Traugott says.
“From this perspective, sitting in this seat is a little different than if I were sitting out there, opining as a concerned citizen. From the perspective of the mayor, I have to compare decisions city-wide as opposed to if it helps or hurts a small number of people. I have to look at the city-wide economic impact, city-wide infrastructure impact, city-wide cultural identity impacts. Those are all important aspects that weigh in the decision. Not to mention that every decision is played out in public.”
The public stage is a place that can be especially difficult for introverts like Traugott.
“I really am an introverted person. Sometimes, when I get in a council meeting, I flip a switch. I can be charming. I can be funny. I can be stern, but outside of there, I can be the most shy, introverted human being,” Traugott says. “I leave there and I think, just give me a book. It’s worth knowing, because it explains my aloofness.”
What helps is being involved in civic engagement. Traugott serves on the Kentucky League of Cities Executive Board. He also serves on the Bluegrass Area Development District Executive Board where he chairs the development advisory committee.
“Regionalism is something that you need an organization like BGADD to do because we all have natural propensities to compete with each other,” Traugott says. “It’s also the great equalizer between the Lexingtons and the Versailles. The BGADD gives me the same seat at the table that Mayor Gray has and that means a lot to small towns. It’s invaluable to me.”
While regionalism helps, Traugott still enjoys working through the day-to-day operations.
“Democracy is a funny thing. It’s easy to do what people want you to do. It’s hard to do what you want to do. I’m accountable to people. Government isn’t us versus them. Government is us, period,” Traugott says.
“Hopefully, people respect [my decisions] and if they don’t respect and like the decision, they respect where it comes from. That’s all I can ask, really.”
Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer from Paris. She wrote this story for the Bluegrass Area Development District.