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A day in the life of Elizabethtown Mayor Edna Berger

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Two months into her new role, retired business owner finds her groove in unexpected office

By Marty Finley

Editor’s note: Elizabethtown City Hall opened its doors to The News-Enterprise for an entire day as it followed the footsteps of Mayor Edna Berger, thrust into the city’s leadership position by appointment after the June death of Mayor Tim Walker.

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Mayor Edna Berger’s morning begins with an exhortation to employees gathered in the conference room at the end of Elizabethtown City Hall’s third floor.

“I don’t like this head table junk,” Berger says as she carries a large soda and moves briskly on the foot she broke months ago.

Two months into her role as head of city government, she operates in an unassuming way that makes her relatable to those under her leadership.

Berger, 68, the retired small business owner thrust into the mayor’s seat by appointment after the June death of Tim Walker, plunges headlong into the morning as she gathers those most involved in redeveloping downtown.

“You’ll find nothing happens until Charlie appears,” Berger whispers, referring to Executive Assistant Charlie Bryant who soon joins in a relaxed conversation that includes a discussion about redevelopment of the former Fitz’s Coffee Shop.

Berger offers her first confession of the day, saying Bryant has been a patient mentor as she acclimates to managing a city.

“Charlie knows everything,” Berger said. “He’s taught me more than I ever thought I wanted to learn.”

Berger became Elizabethtown’s leader under unusual and tragic circumstances, stepping in to finish Walker’s term after he succumbed to a massive heart attack at his home. Berger was one of three council members interested as the council narrowed its search for an appointee over several weeks. She will not run for the office, she said, and plans to step away from politics altogether after finishing as the council’s top vote-getter in the last two elections.

In a moment of candor, she said elected officials should do their jobs by simply serving the people, describing a distinct distaste for “smear politics.”

As the discussion about downtown redevelopment heats up, talk turns to the need for more restaurants as one member of the  group jokes the city should lobby Chick-fil-A manager and Elizabethtown Tourism Commissioner Chris Flanagan for a downtown version of his restaurant.

“I think a two-story McDonald’s would be awesome,” Berger quips.

The banter quickly subsides as development of the Kentucky High School Basketball of Fame is discussed. The Elizabethtown Tourism & Convention Bureau’s recently voted to award the hall of fame $200,000 over several years to help with operational and construction expenses, but the money hinges on the hall of fame operating downtown.

City Planner Kevin Strader tells Berger downtown needs to be properly defined or the hall could be lured toward a building outside the historic district.

“Then we say no,” Berger says, her tone turning authoritative. “They didn’t come to us with $4 million. They need our help. Without us, they can’t do it.”

A change of pace

Berger has a personality layered with a biting sense of humor, a throaty laugh, a massive smile and an unfiltered opinion.

A filter, she said, is what she is trying to develop because she knows her words carry more heft and are highly scrutinized now that her responsibilities have multiplied.

“I just have to learn to watch my mouth,” she said, hearing more of her opinionated mother in her voice as she speaks these days. “Stop and think before I open my mouth.”

Aside from modest personal touches, the mayor’s office has changed little since Berger took over, excluding the miniature refrigerator sitting behind her desk, which her husband purchased for her.

When Berger managed her own business, decisions were made quickly, but government’s multiple layers and hierarchies can be tedious and challenging to navigate, she admitted.

“In government, it moves a lot slower,” she said. “A whole lot slower.”

After a quick break, she holds a private meeting with Police Chief Tracy Schiller, who outlines new initiatives and ideas he plans to run by City Council. And he comes bearing good news, telling Berger one of his officers has been chosen for an FBI training course at Quantico, Va.

“That’s where NCIS is,” Berger said with a laugh, referring to the popular television show. “I know all about that.”

Around town

With her morning commitments finished, Berger uses the majority of her day to drive around Elizabethtown, waving at employees and engaging city workers and department heads about complaints she’s fielded.

The white SUV designated for the mayor previously was driven by Walker and this revelation caused Berger to boycott its use for several weeks. Berger said she could not comfortably sit behind the wheel knowing it had belonged to Walker, afraid his family may see her driving it.

Berger has exhibited empathy toward Walker’s family from the beginning, holding a quiet swearing-in ceremony attended by only a handful of employees and her family.

It was only after Bryant pushed her that she relented and took the keys.

“I still feel funny driving it,” she said.

She travels slowly down Madison Drive, pointing at driveways where homeowners have used cement or other obstructions to fill in and smooth out their driveways. Because of the adverse impact these makeshift barriers can inhibit stormwater drainage, the city intends to remove them from the right-of-way. Describing the plan, Berger can practically hear the tense backlash coming but resigns herself to the notion her job sometimes warrants unpopular decisions.

“It’s hard to keep everybody happy,” she said.

Berger also takes a drive by construction of the Towne Drive extension — which she believes will provide an ideal alternative route to U.S. 31W and could spark more interest from developers. She also stops in for a quick visit at Elizabethtown Nature Park, where she walks the trail under Ring Road for the first time, knocking off a bucket list item.

Her travels eventually take her to Westview Drive, where she is briefed on ditch work to clear storm pipes. Public works employees Sonny Kerrick and Johnny Thompson inform her some homeowners have piled leaves and other refuse in the storm pipes, which contributes to flooding.

The respect she holds for city workers is evident throughout the day as she approaches each employee with an enthusiastic desire to learn. Berger said she believes the combined experience and attention to detail exhibited by the city’s workforce is impeccable and a major reason why Elizabethtown has been so successful in attracting interest.

She also welcomes complaints because it is a sure cure for loneliness and makes her feel connected to those she serves, she said.

“You ain’t lonely no more,” Thompson says.

One complaint that continues to surface is the city’s fourth-class status, which a contingent of residents argue is dishonest and illegal.

Some wonder if Berger’s appointment offers a new chapter of dialog on the issue, but she considers the debate dead.

Construction of the Elizabethtown Sports Park was financed by a 2 percent restaurant tax, which could be in danger of repeal if the city reclassified to second-class status. Should the city lose that revenue stream, she noted, the burden of debt would fall on the general fund.

“That, I believe, is the reason it would never pass on the council,” she said.

‘Now you get used to it’

When Berger was in the tire business, she never got sued after lunch.

Returning to her office later that afternoon, she found a complaint on her desk, which also accuses Public Works Superintendent Don Hill and City Attorney D. Dee Shaw of negligence after the complainant fell into an uncovered hole on property on Nalls Road.

Berger quickly skimmed the contents of the complaint and found herself laughing at the surreal nature of the moment — her first lawsuit as mayor.

When her eyes drifted onto the name of the lawyer, she shrieked.

“I’m being sued by (attorney) Karl Truman,” she said loudly. “I’m so honored. He’s a television star.”

Bryant strolled into her office wearing a smile, recalling the puzzled look on Walker’s face the first time he was served a lawsuit. Bryant said Walker came to him and asked, “What do I do now?”

“Now you get used to it,” Bryant said.

Marty Finley can be reached at 270-505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.