There is a new mayor in town. TOPS President Kristen Oakley and Editor Megan Hillenmeyer had the chance to sit down with her in the former Lafayette Hotel ballroom, which now serves as the central hub for the mayor and her staff. As we got to know Mayor Linda Gorton, we quickly learned that she is as approachable as she is adventurous. (Did you know she has a brown belt in Taekwondo and has flown a plane solo?) If you ever meet her on the streets of Lexington, she will greet you with a smile and a handshake.
Mayor Gorton is as professional as she is light-hearted. She has a fun rapport with her staff, joking in the halls about having to get her photo taken. “We always have to keep our sense of humor. Government can get deadly serious in an instant,” she said. Mayor Gorton’s warm personality left us leaving the old ballroom feeling welcomed, inspired and hopeful for Lexington’s future.
Just don’t call her a politician: she thinks of herself as a public servant.
TOPS: What has life been like since you became Mayor?
Mayor Gorton: Very exciting, busy, varied. There is a lot going on in City Hall. Many things I didn’t even anticipate, No day is ever the same. That is one of the things I love about it.
What do you love most about Lexington?
I love the people. The people are our biggest asset. Our volunteer and nonprofit base is huge. We are a super friendly community, filled with people who want to make us a better community. We are a city with a really high quality of life. We have a strong business community. We have a very diverse economy with healthcare, a major university, small business, equine, cattle. That diversity is one of the things that make us special. And Lexington is a gorgeous place.
What are some of your favorite things to do in town?
My personal time is very limited right now! When I have personal time, I love to explore the arts with Gallery Hop, local plays and music. I love going to concerts. I like to read. I love to walk at the arboretum. And I love spending time with my grandchildren and family: that is really important to me. I love to eat out at 0ur special, local restaurants – there are so many places to enjoy!
What would surprise most people to know about you?
Most people probably wouldn’t know that I have a brown belt in Taekwondo. I earned it when I lived in South Korea. Most people wouldn’t know that I learned to fly when I lived in Germany, and I have solo flown a plane. That was invigorating!
Tell us about your overall goals as mayor.
I want to continue to be sure to run our city in a fiscally responsible way so we have good financial grounding, and that we always put people first. If you look at what government does, it’s all about serving people. We try to be customer friendly, so people understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Openness in government is really important to me. The people should never have to wonder what we are doing with their tax dollars. I want to have really strong relationships with elected council members. Most of what goes on at the local level requires collaboration with council members, the executive branch and legislative branch.
How do you hope to see the city of Lexington change or improve during your term?
I want us to continue to focus on the addiction challenge. The opioid addiction situation affects so many different areas in our community, such as crime and jobs. I want to see some improvement in those arenas.
I want to continue to focus on jobs. Unemployment is historically the lowest it has ever been; but we still need to bring in good jobs because we know that some jobs will leave. We don’t want our people to leave.
Another really big challenge where I want to have an impact is our continued work towards balancing growth while maintaining a good quality of life and low cost of living. Every census, we have grown 30 to 35 thousand people. The challenge is how to continue growing without compromising what we have here.
What is your first step in tackling the opioid epidemic?
My first step was hiring Andrea James, whose sole focus right now is on the opioid epidemic. Right now she is in the phase of looking at the data for Fayette County, looking at best practices across the country to see what other communities are doing to bring their overdoses down and their addiction and recovery treatment numbers up. Our police and fire departments are wonderful at what they do, but they need help. What we need is more cooperation and coordination. You can arrest someone and put them in jail for a few days, but when they get out, they are not recovered. They have to have treatment. Addiction is a disease and it is impossible to treat yourself. That recovery piece is so important.
What would you say to young girls about being a woman in a powerful leadership role?
We need you! Don’t ever be afraid to consider leadership roles. Look for mentors along the way. It is important for those of us in leadership positions to mentor young women. Women bring a different perspective. We can offer a lot of positive things in leadership roles. After all, Lexingotn is 52% female. We should be leading. It is important.
Who are your mentors?
I had very strong women in my family - my grandmother, my great grandmother, my mother. We are all strong women. Politically, I looked to Pam Miller, our first female mayor. I was on Pam’s council when she was mayor. I am the third female mayor in Lexington. That says something about Lexington! I also look to Isabel Yates, former vice mayor. Those two women are very strong and kind. They put people first.
Since this is for our Money Issue, tell us about the fiscal and financial health of Lexington.
Lexington has always had very stable finances. Every so often, we go through ups and downs. I remember tough economic times from serving on council. As the leader, you have to realize that swings will occur. My husband taught me budgets are frameworks: they are meant to be flexible. They are a guide post. As you go through the year, you see how your budget is matching up and you make adjustments.
The fiscal health of Lexington is very good. We have a AA Stable standing rating from our bond raters. We have a very healthy rain day fund, which we have intentionally built over the years. We are prepared in the event of an emergency.
In all of my elected offices, I have never forgotten whose money this is. It’s not my money. It is the people’s money. When you remember that, you remember to be careful with how it is spent.
Tell us about your vision for infill development.
We need more of it. We need to keep moving toward healthy infill and redevelopment that doesn’t negatively impact the neighborhoods. This is important to me because I am a big supporter of our urban services boundary and our agriculture. A lot of people look at the farms and think “what pretty green space,” but those are all businesses. Every one of them. They just look different because they are based on the land. So this balance for us in terms of having healthy agriculture and healthy urban businesses and healthy neighborhoods is what makes a great city - when they all work together.
Do you have an update on moving the government buildings to a new facility?
We are here! There was a proposal. Council voted it down. This building is 100 years old. It was a fabulous hotel, but it was never meant to be a permanent government center. We are in a ballroom right now. Three different mayors have proposed a new government center. I was serving on council during all of that time. I believe we should look at it again and try to be on the same page, in terms of the council wanting to pursue and understanding the need. The vice mayor has called a meeting of the council to discuss the need.
One fear is that this move will leave the 5 large government buildings downtown vacant. Do you think these spaces will be put to good use if the government offices move?
I don’t think that will be a problem. Builders and developers are eager for good space to develop. This building in particular is just ready for someone to restore a historic building into a new use. The appetite will be there. Then we could move into an efficient, up to date building that is meant for government. I am optimistic about it.
Anything else you want people to know about you?
I don’t see myself as any different than anyone else. I’m just Linda or Gigi or mom. I realize I am in a position where I have a different responsibility and I take it very seriously. But I am still just me. And I can’t change that!