By Kristy Robinson Horine
Bluegrass Area Development District
A young couple pushes a stroller down a sidewalk. Visitors greet one another on the street to share their hand-crafted finds. An architect spreads out his building plans and shares his ideas with a member of the citizen’s advisory committee.
Everywhere you look, it seems, there is communication, collaboration, and a deep-seated sense of community. Connelly, who serves Berea as the fourth mayor in the city’s 126 year history, says these attributes didn’t happen by accident.
“One of the good things about Berea is that we have a progressive, enlightened community that has all sorts of good people who have lots of good ideas,” he says. “One of the things local government can do is to listen and be available when suggestions are made, and to encourage suggestions to see where there are opportunities for local government to assist local groups who are already excited and have a vision. How can we bring our institutional ability to help them get things done that are good for the whole community?”
This is a question Connelly looks forward to answering every day.
In the mid-1800s, Cassius Clay gifted his friend, the Reverend John Fee, with a piece of land in southern Madison County. Reverend Fee situated his ten acres high atop a ridge and eventually named the growing town Berea, after a like-named town in the New Testament book of Acts which was described as ready to receive the Word of God.
The initial drive to establish this portion of southern Madison County was grounded in the abolitionist movement. Clay had political and social aspirations to create a slave-free community where equality and freedom was a way of life. History books will tell of the rise of Berea, the exodus during troubling times, and the return to rebuild after a war that tore entire families into pieces.
Still, the desire to create something good in Berea permeated the very earth and air of the place.
In the 1940s, Connelly’s parents came to Berea College where they met and married and eventually settled down to raise a family. They bought one house in the community and lived in it all their lives, and Connelly’s father had one job, working at the college all his life.
When Connelly was a sophomore his mother sent him to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire to finish out his high school education. After graduation, he entered Williams College in Massachusetts to play soccer. He went back home to Berea, and laughs about how it was a mistake to come home, for that gave him a bad case of homesickness. He moved back to Berea and completed his undergraduate education at Berea College. While there, he met Thana, whom he married, and they had two sons, Reid and Ethan. In 1974, he enlisted in the Army where he studied Arabic. After that, he was accepted to the University of Kentucky’s Law School and eventually moved his practice to Berea in 1981.
“I think the combination of growing up in a small town that was very much liberalized by having a major presence of a liberal arts college like Berea that has been focused on civil rights and education and service to Appalachia, combined with rudely being pulled out, shook and being sent to school in a New England prep school, were the real formative shapings that I had growing up,” Connelly explains.
At first, he aimed to use those shapings in a way that he thought would best help his community. He ran for positions including state representative and district judge, yet lost those races. Then, in 1996, he ran for Berea City Council, was elected, and served for six years.
In 2002, as what Connelly calls “one of eight voices,” he felt he could make a bigger impact if he moved into the mayor’s position. He was elected to his first of four terms in 2003.
“I felt that being one of eight council members, my voice was really somewhat muffled and I couldn’t have that much of an influence. By being mayor, I have more influence and it was worth possibly losing and being out of the city government. It was worth doing that,” he says.
Once he earned the right to a bigger voice for his community, Connelly didn’t squander the opportunity.
Answer With Good
“I didn’t come in with an agenda. I wasn’t here to make changes in terms of the way Berea was being run,” Connelly says. “It’s a great town. It already had this history, a progressive, enlightened history – to a big extent because of the college and its faculty. I viewed it as up to me to fit in and I believed I did. But it also gave me the opportunity to lend my support and to also direct some of the decisions we made in terms of projects.”
One of those projects included making Berea a more pedestrian and bike-friendly place.
“You would see mothers trying to force a baby carriage up the hill on the side of the road and it happened to be a state highway,” Connelly says. “We were able to design and convert the ditch line into a curb and gutter sidewalk and got a grant to link up to other [sidewalks] over the neighborhood.”
This year, a shared use trail from downtown Berea out to the college-owned Indian Fort Mountain, will be finished, allowing for increased non-motorized mobility as well as a space to safely conduct future 5k runs to increase the athletic portion of the tourism emphasis.
“Rather than having an agenda, it was an ability to put the mayor’s interest along with a lot of citizen interest to focus the city’s bureaucracy on this and get something done,” Connelly explains.
A second initiative was to purchase the electric and water utilities from the college. Connelly appointed a citizen advisory committee to look at city operations and come up with ideas about improvements.
“One of the things they came up with was an idea to write a grant to have a solar farm, to get a hundred solar panels that we could install at our utility, allow citizens to lease them for 25 years, and then they could use the electricity generated from their panel to offset some of their monthly bill,” Connelly says.
“By harnessing the energy and the imagination and the excitement of the local group and by being willing to listen and tap into those initiatives, our local government was more responsive and better off.”
That principle of making decisions for the good of the people, Connelly says, shines through in all of the initiatives and projects set forth by the city. The city also enlisted the help of the Bluegrass Area Development District with technical support such as grant writing help and the administration of monies from those grants.
And, yes, there are concrete examples – like the sidewalks and the solar panels and a renovation of the city buildings, but there are also less tangible examples of a government working toward what it thinks is the good of the people.
“We have been, through our history, interested in equal rights and civil rights,” Connelly says “We have established a human rights commission, trying to be a leader, to recognize LGBT rights as part of our personnel policy and the city has adopted a policy that there will not be any sale or dispensation or distribution of the confederate flag as an item on city property at any kind of festival.”
While there was minor blowback regarding the confederate flag, Connelly seeks to look at the bigger picture, and that means looking back at the city’s history as well as looking forward into their future.
“It takes a little more effort to be sensitive to try to avoid something that unnecessarily can raise an issue,” Connelly says. “You know, Bluegrass RECC has a wonderful saying that our power is our people. That is true of local government in particular. We provide services and we can’t provide services well without having good, trained people who are interested in doing that. We have surplus in the bank. We have audits every year. We try to have open records and open meetings. When we screw up we try to get it right the next time, but we look at this as a legacy we have received.”