A New Attitude
Bellefonte to Witness Change with New Slate of Leaders at the Helm
By Tammie Hetzer-Womack
The Greater Ashland Beacon
BELLEFONTE – On this luminous and lightsome November 13 day, the bright skies are a sunny symbolism of change to come in the city of Bellefonte. Outside the city building, the local feline greets the new Mayor, walking in the door as the town police chuckle. There is a whole new sense of optimism from the slate of commissioners arriving - upbeat, prepared to be sworn into their newly-elected offices.
As the city endured its recent tug-of-war regarding a clash over a city-imposed eight percent insurance tax, there’s a row between homeowners who faced a grapple with the dollars removed from families’ budgets.
In hopes of disputing the levy, a group of Bellefonte men teamed in a rare move to run on a slate, banding with collaborative views to disassemble the insurance tax. In November, their “Oppose and Repeal” rally worked with the party, mustering enough votes to espouse the city commission and champion their new cause, pressing to remove the gripping tax.
Leading the group is new Mayor Ryan Reames, and Commissioners Gene DeGiorgio, Dick Dowdy, Todd Keelin, and Tony Womack. Raising their right hands, the gallery plans to go into session in January, a caucus of transparency and a strong stance more citizens should become involved in city politics.
The group is working to familiarize themselves with current laws and ordinances governing the city of Bellefonte. Keelin, 48, a communication and signal manager at CSX Transportation, is reading the ordinances, proving a tough task, years of enactments and bylaws to pilfer through.
“Yes, I’ve spent the past few months reading through ordinances,” chimed in Reames, a 36-year-old financial advisor. “Also, I’ve been speaking with other elected officials in local governments about their experiences and their processes for running a government.”
The team believes there are vital qualities they possess to make city commission work. Womack, 55, a pharmacist and Manager of Walmart Pharmacy in Ashland, believes he is an effective communicator, and his humbleness makes him right for the job. DeGiorgio, a 69-year-old retired physician, added, “City commission should be an advocate for the city - its past and future. And, to each citizen, a good steward of honesty, and good character, as well as a good communicator.”
Keelin went on:
“Being in touch with the community and open to their needs is important. We must be willing to listen and make informed decisions based upon the facts and what will improve the city.”
They affirm to represent constituents’ interests.
“First and foremost, the citizens of Bellefonte sent a resounding message in November. They want their representatives to be good stewards of their city business, along with honest transparency. And, on an ongoing basis, we must solicit the input from our constituents when making decisions that impact the direction of Bellefonte,” Womack pushed.
Dowdy, 76, a retired Nationwide Insurance agent, has top priorities in the new role – “…completely repeal the municipal insurance tax, set up open communication between the commission and constituents, listen and consider all sides, and respond fairly.
“The citizens of Bellefonte run the city. The commission are only delegates of the people.” Dowdy finished.
“I will always be open to my constituents to call, text, email, or come and talk to me about any issues they have,” elucidated Keelin. “I will communicate with them to be in touch with any issues they may have.”
DeGiorgio promises to “address the issues we presented in the campaign, review taxes, suspend unnecessary taxes, improve communication, and make citizens more aware of what’s going on.”
Although this is inaugural experience for all the new commissioners and mayor, they have some experience in politics.
“I have experience working with many different officials from multiple municipalities through CSX,” Keelin replied.
Womack said this new purpose is part of his heritage. “My father was a Greenup County Commissioner and Jailer for over three decades. Politics is a family affair. So, I’m very astute as to how to navigate state, county, and city governments.”
The men know there are difficult decisions ahead. When Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital shutdown, DeGiorgio knew he was near retirement, causing him to reassess his role as a doctor. Little he knew the COVID-19 pandemic would soon draw him back into work life as a part-time physician in the VA medical system.
Womack said his experience in top management positions is “profound.”
He elaborated, “The leader of an organization is the heartbeat of the company. I’ve made those moves more than once during previous roles I’ve been in as a manager.”
Keelin progressed. “I work daily in a very dangerous and demanding job. Making difficult decisions come with it and I couldn’t really pick one. In life, I had many challenges; but, with the grace of God, I have made it through.”
They hope to improve communications by setting up a better website, creating a Facebook page for announcements, and a text system to provide important updates to the public. They shall livestream all public meetings to form transparency between the elected body and its townspeople.
They know there shall be criticism along the way and are prepared from work and life experiences.
“I learned in church there are two sides to any story and being fair and consistent, getting all involved perspectives, will help. If we follow the law and treat people fairly, knowing sometimes people just disagree, and that’s okay.” DeGiorgio attached.
While the new commission is yet to determine the windfall of the budget attained by the insurance tax, they believe they are ready from working on personal, work, and sanctuary budgets.
There are lots of plans in store for Bellefonte. DeGiorgio believes “collaboration, communication, and fairness” are paramount, while Womack leans towards “regulatory and cost considerations.”
“I am a man of faith, so, first and foremost, I pray.” Keelin tacked on. “I was voted in by the citizens of Bellefonte, so I represent their interests. I will discuss with my fellow council members and mayor to make informed decisions for the best interest of our city.”
Although Bellefonte is historically a safe community, the new commission puts precedence on public safety.
“I will work closely with our police department and address their needs and make sure they have any and all tools they need. I will research ways and processes that might be beneficial to our city,” Keelin prioritized.
DeGiorgio offered the same right-of-way. “We need to listen, talk, and communicate to address the needs and desires of citizens, and review what other communities of our size, as well as adjacent cities, have done to develop priorities and plan.”
Womack hopes to be hands-on with Bellefonte Police Department.
“I would entertain starting or restarting Neighborhood Watch programs and augmenting police patrols by partnering with state and county law enforcement agencies.”
Everyone has their own approach to problem solving within the new organization.
“I take a big picture approach. I want to get as much info as possible, so my decisions are informed. I deal with troubleshooting and problem solving every day in my job, so I know how to prioritize and be calm in all situations and not make knee-jerk decisions,” Keelin voiced.
The mayor affirmed. “I address problems with brainstorming different ideas and then funnel down workable solutions with their pros and cons until an optimal solution is reached.”
DeGiorgio “reviews the problem, gets input from all involved groups and persons, discusses and complies with state and city laws,” he said, before “developing a plan, implementing, and critically reviewing - after a time - for effectiveness.”
The commission each have specific strategies and mindsets going in.
“I plan to go into this position with an open mind knowing there is always more to learn and there is more than one way to do things,” the mayor shared.
Womack said he underwent Six Sigma Lean Management training sessions during his career.
“Implementing this mindset will improve our city and our city leaders and employees.”
They’re a positive force for the future of Bellefonte. Inspirations include family, fortitude, and faith.
“I’m a man of my word and I’ll fight for those I represent,” Keelin concluded on a worshipful note.