Editor's Note: This article was updated on Tuesday, Sep. 15 at 2:45 p.m. to add that Commissioner Eric Whisman spoke up in support of Mayor Bill May's use of Boxcar. It was also updated to clarify that Boxcar representative Kirk Hillbrecht mentioned civil unrest as a result of the killing of Breonna Taylor, not George Floyd.
City Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge, Frankfort Mayor Bill May and representatives of the public relations and crisis communications firm Boxcar held an hour-long back and forth at Monday’s special work session over the merits of the firm’s services to the city.
Though the item was added late to the agenda — over the weekend after not being on the agenda sent out Friday evening — it became one of the first items of discussion Monday with May bringing it up quickly.
The city has paid the Louisville-based firm $5,000 a month since June 1. The mayor emphasized, as he has in the past, that he stands by his decision to hire the firm during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the case that serious civil unrest takes place in Frankfort.
“Being prepared is something that I’m proud to say I’ve done here,” May said. “… I’ll take any kind of criticism for being ahead of the curve instead of being behind the curve.”
In response to current and previous criticism from Waldridge, May also noted again that he let three of the city’s four commissioners — Waldridge excluded — know about the expense before he signed the contract. He said he also alerted City Attorney Laura Ross, Emergency Management Director and interim City Manager Tom Russell and former City Manager Keith Parker.
Commissioners Scott Tippett, John Sower, and Eric Whisman all spoke up to confirm that they knew about and approved of the expense, with Sower emphasizing that many cities around the country use public relations firms.
“This is an awful attempt at indicting you (May) for something that I think was well-serving the community at large,” Sower said.
Waldridge continued to question the mayor over why the firm only communicated with only him in their service to the city. She also asked the mayor why she did not receive emails sent between May and Boxcar on May’s personal account in her initial open records request for “all information” regarding Boxcar.
In response, May said that city IT staff was not able to find all of the emails in response to Waldridge’s request.
May also said that he asked City Clerk Chermie Maxwell, who is in charge of responding to open records requests, if he should provide copies of personal email accounts that were also included in emails with his city account. He said that Maxwell told him that he didn’t have to.
“The city staff did everything they could do to be diligent to find all records,” May said.
But May did not mention his emails with Boxcar representatives on his personal account that did not include his city email account. Those emails should have been included in response to The State Journal’s initial open records request, which was worded to include “communications transmitted on public devices/accounts and private devices/accounts,” but were not.
The State Journal received those communications from the city last week and is reviewing them and comparing to past emails received and to emails given the newspaper by Boxcar as proof of extra work — that includes a 692-page document of email recipients and subject lines.
May and Waldridge sparred over whether the mayor or anyone in the city was withholding information from the public, with May saying that Waldridge was “distorting the truth.”
Waldridge, in referring to May earlier stating that she was out of order and asking her to calm down, said that it was the equivalent of him calling her “a mad Black woman.”
“You are violating our rules of procedure when you make those type of inappropriate comments, and we’re not going to allow it,” May said.
“99.9% of our community is not going to take anything out of your mouth against me and look at me any differently,” Waldridge said. “I’ve given them no reason to think that I would lie to them, to you, or to anyone else, but your integrity has been tainted… you can take stabs at me all you want.”
Waldridge continued in her criticism of the mayor’s comments and use of Boxcar until firm representatives Kirk Hillbrecht and Geoff Dunn came on the line at the virtual meeting to discuss the firm’s work for the city.
Hillbrecht detailed most of the work done by Boxcar for the city to the commission, pointing to several instances of COVID-related work. Some of that work was included in the initial open records requests that informed prior State Journal coverage, but communications from May’s personal devices and accounts were only provided by the city recently.
The Boxcar representative also mentioned several instances in which the firm aided the mayor’s messaging around civil unrest surrounding the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the hanging of Gov. Andy Beshear in effigy; worked on audits of the city’s web presence; and modified press releases sent out through the city's and county’s Joint Information Center. He added that initial reporting by The State Journal did not paint the full picture of the firm's scope of work.
He said Boxcar was only responsible for submitting work to the mayor — not others with the city — and was not asked to submit anything directly to the public. They said that the work they did reached the public through the Joint Information Center.