Paducah City Commission removes member for misconduct over racially charged text
The Paducah City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to remove one of its members after a finding that they committed misconduct in the form of a racially charged text.
The text was one of a series sent by David Guess, a four-term commissioner, to a city employee on Election Day after political signs had been removed from civic property in violation of a Paducah ordinance. Some of the signs were advertising Dujuan Thomas, an African-American candidate for city commissioner.
This text exchange showed Guess making the statements “You got dujan [sic] under control” and “Whitey keeping a black man down.”
The matter – originally brought before the commission in late December – was decided after a public misconduct hearing presided over by Mayor George Bray.
Bray read a statement on behalf of the commission at the close of the meeting, saying the group has had to “wrestle with one of the toughest issues that City leaders will ever face” over the past 60 days.
“The decision to remove a commissioner, while very challenging and defining for the entire community, we believe sets a standard for behavior as leaders of our city going forward. While we have much work left to do, our community has made tremendous gains in the area of diversity, equity, and minority inclusion,” the mayor said. “This is one of the areas that defines the city that we all want to live in, where we want our children to live, and where others will choose to live as they make relocation decisions in the future. Simply stated, as a community we have made many gains and are simply not willing to take a step backwards.”
The commission’s verdict was reached at the end of a nearly four-hour hearing that heard testimony from Guess; Paducah deputy chief of fire prevention Greg Cherry, the employee that received the texts from Guess; City of Paducah Human Resources director Stefanie Wilcox; and Paducah-McCracken County NAACP president J.W. Cleary. These witnesses were questioned by respondent counsel David T. Riley and complainant counsel/special prosecutor Carol Schureck Petitt.
When questioned by Petitt as to why he sent the text, Guess characterized it as “inappropriate” and “a poor attempt at humor” that he followed with an apology text to Cherry one minute later.
“‘Whitey keeping a black man down’ is a phrase and so, yes, I used that phrase but then as I saw immediately, I put ‘Sorry just came out.’ I … knew it wasn't the best remark I could have made,” Guess said.
Petitt framed her argument against the City of Paducah’s internal progressive discipline policy – which was alluded to several times during the hearing as a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to language regarding race. Petitt referenced a pair of 2022 terminations by the City of Paducah related to racially insensitive statements, both of which Guess voted in favor of as a member of the commission. He said in each of those cases employees felt threated by the language used, but that he meant no threat to Cherry.
“So what applies to city employees being fired for making these types of comments that doesn't apply to you? I'm asking you that as a leader of this community,” Petitt said. “You don't hold yourself to the same standard that you hold the city employees too, isn't that correct?”
“I will stick [by that] there was nothing threatening. And I understand I don't know what they were feeling, but there was nothing threatening in what I said and that's why mine is different than the others,” Guess responded.
Cherry said the texts from Guess made him “uncomfortable.”
“It's a violation of city policy,” Cherry said. “We don't say stuff like that.”
Wilcox, the city’s human resources director, confirmed the existence of the internal “zero tolerance” policy, saying it was passed in July 2022. They also called the text exchange “inappropriate” because of its “racial connotation.”
Cleary called for Guess’s resignation during a December meeting of the commission. When asked his opinion of Guess, Cleary called for positive community change – something he believes starts “at the top” – even though ultimately the local NAACP leader said he thinks he’s a “good-hearted person” who made a mistake.
“When you know better, [you’re] supposed to do better. I've heard that story so many times that ‘I did that maybe because I was drinking’ or … ‘I was tired’ or ‘I didn't mean to do it’ or whatever,” the local NAACP leader said. “But to me what happens when [you’re] in those types of circumstances or those situations the true feelings come out sometimes.”
Guess was elected to a fourth term in office in November. His vacant seat is statutorily required to be filled by a majority vote of the remaining commissioners in the next 30 days. If the commission fails to do so, then the responsibility shifts to the governor’s office.
Bray told WKMS after the meeting that the commission plans to fulfill its obligation, though the group hasn’t determined how they’ll make their selection. He said discussion of this methodology could come as soon as next week’s commission meeting.
“We’ll be discussing it among ourselves,” Bray said. “We’re going to consider all our options.”
The entire hearing can be viewed below: