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Conservative city leader steps down after 16 years
John Howard focused on city finances and growth
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John Howard isn’t one for pomp and circumstance, but his 16 years of service on the Covington city council called for at least a small show of ceremony.

Monday’s city council meeting was Howard’s last, and several community members and friends attended to wish Howard a fond farewell, including good friend and boss Jerry Capes, and former Mayor Sam Ramsey.

A few days after his final meeting, Howard sat down and looked back at his time on the council, including his very first election.

When Howard was running for city council in 1993, he remembered many community members telling him he probably wouldn’t win the first time.

"I was new to the scene, so they told me I wouldn’t get elected, but my campaign would be good for name recognition for the next election," he said.

However, the city appeared ready for a change, and Howard ended up winning his first time out in a runoff election. That same year Bobby Sigman and Bertha Goss were elected to the council, and Howard said the three new members shook up the status quo.

"Some people never expected anyone new to come on the council. The members had been there for a long time," he said. "They did what they wanted. I don’t mean that in a bad way, because they got things done."

Howard said the former councils had been successful, but one of the things he wanted to do was bring more openness.

"I wanted to look at the finances more and study the budget. I figured if I got on the council, I could so some things that hadn’t been done in the past," he said. "The council looked at the three of us as interlopers at first. It was different because they couldn’t count on my vote. I believe now, after that first year, when they realized I wasn’t being manipulated by others in the community, they had more respect for me."

Howard said there wasn’t one specific project or vote he could point to as the most important or meaningful. However, he said the efforts to plan for the future growth and economic development of the city were always a priority. He said the Livable Centers Initiative Study and the Covington Bypass Corridor Overlay were two of the most important studies, and the city ordinances that came from those studies are important tools to control and shape growth.

"The Bypass overlay put restrictions on size and aesthetics. It really focused growth and was very important at that time," he said. "The future council really needs to continue to look at the ordinances, and make sure that developers obey the existing ones."

Politicians often spend their campaigns talking about their accomplishments, but Howard said he’s just been a piece to the puzzle.

"People say you did this or that, but that’s not really the case. We’re all just helping each other," he said.

Howard doesn’t have many regrets, but that’s partially by design. In his farewell speech at Monday’s council meeting, he gave some advice to the five current council members and his replacement, Councilman-elect Chris Smith.

"What I’ve always tried to do, if a motion was defeated that I wanted passed, that was water under the bridge. You never go back and worry about what happened — that will eat you alive," he said.

Howard is perhaps best known as one of the most fiscally conservative council members, and goes over the city’s budget line item by line item. The task wasn’t as tough for him, because he had made his career in accounting for large manufacturing companies.

While the small items add up, Howard said the city’s larger capital projects were the most important to examine. He said the process has also become easier, because although the city and budget have grown, the budget gets a more thorough review by city staff than it used to.

Unlike so many other older elected officials in Newton County, Howard is not a life-long resident of the area. He was born in western Pennsylvania and lived there through college — he graduated from Westminster College. After school he moved to Wheeling, W.V., where worked in accounting for a manufacturing company that made Crest toothpaste tubes.

In wasn’t until 1967 that Howard moved to Covington. An industry headhunter put Howard in contact with a representative from the Brunswick Corporation. After working in Covington for a short while, he was moved to Cincinnati, and was asked to move again to Chicago. Having no desire to live in a major metropolitan area, he decided to move back to Covington and was hired by Aaron Rents, a furniture rental and sales company. The Aaron’s plant was located in Duluth, but Howard remained in Covington.

"I knew it was a good place to raise children. We had always lived in and loved small towns, and we had developed many close friends here," he said.

Years later, he’s become one of the city’s most recognizable faces. As he approaches his 76th birthday, Howard said he think the council needs some younger blood.

Howard won’t miss the time he put into to studying the budget and other issues, but he will miss the people he spent that time with.

"The relationship I had with the people who worked in the city is what I’ll miss the most," he said. "We have exceptional employees — I wouldn’t trade them for anybody."

Howard said he always tried to give people a fair shake, and he believes he doesn’t have any enemies in the city. But he knows there are a lot of people the council hasn’t been able to help over the years, and that was the hardest part of the job.

"A lot of people weren’t satisfied with the decisions we made, and, sometimes, they were people I had known for a long time. The hardest thing was that you had to vote for what was right, but at the same time you would really like to help people," he said. "But sometimes you’re hands are tied, and you just can’t help."

As Howard prepares to step down from the council, he’s not yet ready to step away from public service. During some of his 16 years, Howard was also a member of the tree board, recreation commission and airport advisory committee. All of those are tied to his position on the council, so he won’t be continuing on in 2010. But in a cryptic style that fits a man who prefers to keep things quiet, Howard said he has something in mind for the new year.

"If it happens, it won’t be a small thing," he said.