In 1999, the Knights of the White Kamellia Ku Klux Klan applied for a permit to hold a rally at the Harrison County courthouse plaza in Clarksburg, W.Va. The city council of the predominantly white rural community of 16,000 had just elected its first African-American mayor, David Kates. Needless to say, Clarksburg faced a difficult challenge: recognizing freedom of expression while facing a possible disruption to the public order.

Standing by Kates was former Clarksburg Mayor and Councilmember Jim Hunt, who offered some innovative ideas for addressing the presence of the KKK in his community. “There was some discussion that we shouldn't do anything,” says Hunt, now a five-term councilman. “All I wanted was the opportunity for our community to come together, to let people make a decision that they weren't going to choose apathy, and that they weren't a community that would embrace hatred.”

City officials granted the KKK's permit but also coordinated with emergency department heads and the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force to formulate a response in case of violence. But even more significant, Hunt and the mayor encouraged the community to come together in a “Let's Get Real Rally.”

More than 300 community members participated in Clarksburg's answer to the KKK, far outnumbering the 15 Klan members who showed up for the demonstration. “I think what's most impressive about Jim is that he and [then-mayor] Pastor Kates worked together to deal with this, by having their own rally,” says Lisa Dooley, executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League. “It meant applying just a little bit of common sense. They were thoughtful about engaging the community. [The rally] gave people a purpose — to celebrate diversity.”

To continue to open a dialogue on matters of race and inclusiveness, Hunt and Kates co-founded a civil rights organization called The Unity Project. They visited local schools and community groups, and supported a performance of a Harriet Tubman play at city hall. While the Klan controversy occurred seven years ago, and Kates has since died, Hunt's means of addressing racial and community relations still serves as testimony to his character and as a fundamental factor in his selection as American City & County's 2006 Municipal Leader of the Year.

Actions speak strongly

Following his graduation from West Virginia University in Morgantown, Hunt worked as a learning disabilities specialist in the Harrison County School System in 1973. He did not stay in education but remains devoted to shaping young people's lives.

This year was the second time Hunt coordinated a week-long visit from high school and college student members of the Initiatives of Change Action Team Project hailing from Rwanda, Latvia, Vietnam, Senegal and the Ukraine. Initiatives of Change is as an international organization aimed at “building relationships of trust across world divides.” The agenda included visits to city departments and local community organizations, attendance at a city council meeting, and a foreign exchange workshop at Clarksburg's Liberty High School. Hunt also arranged housing for the students with host families and personally shuttled students to various activities. “He's active with the school's Civil Rights Team,” says Dennis Zahradnik, Liberty High School principal. “He got them to do presentations in Washington. They even introduced Laura Bush at the [National] League of Cities event.”

Also at that event, six students from Liberty High School and seven students from a Selma, Ala., high school met in Washington to develop a blue print for other schools to foster an appreciation of diversity and attitudes of inclusiveness. But Hunt's push for inclusiveness goes beyond race and ethnic origin. Rather, inclusiveness engages the elderly, the handicapped, those with special needs, gays, lesbians, and transgender persons. Seeking the ideas of everyone in the community is essential to inclusiveness, Hunt says.

“How many city officials thought we solved the problems for disabled people by simply adhering to specs imposed by the American Disabilities Act?” he asks. “And, how many have actually sat down and talked with the individuals using the improvements?” He then recalls a blind person telling him that, “the sound on the city's walk signals was too low to offer any assistance.”

As this year's president of the Washington-based National League of Cities (NLC), Hunt is spearheading the organization's Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities, which requires that participating communities adopt a standard resolution that commits them to building inclusive communities. The resolution states a level of commitment, and the program offers guidance, but it does not dictate actions, Hunt says. The program encourages placement of signs reading, “Welcome. We are building an inclusive community,” throughout the communities and on their Web sites.

Hunt says that just as “White Only” signs were used to promote segregation and drive people apart in the South, “signs promoting inclusiveness can bring people together.” So far, about 120 cities have committed to the program. “The key to the inclusive cities program is that each community decides its own inclusiveness issues based on the unique needs of its population,” he says.

For example, Hemiston, Ore., adopted Spanish-language family nights, while St. Petersburg, Fla., used a barbecue cook off to promote racial equality. Carlisle, Pa.'s resolution resulted in a gay, lesbian and transgender student organization from a local college serving on its inclusiveness advisory panel.

“It's a powerful testament to a white man who grew up in West Virginia to have the political courage and will to make issues of inclusiveness the agenda of a national organization,” says Selma, Ala., Mayor James Perkins. “He brings to the table a special presence, not because of his stature or deep resonating voice. He brings an unusual spirit that says, ‘This man means what he says.’”

Acting locally

While Hunt travels throughout the country promoting NLC's Inclusive Cities program, he always manages to find time for his local responsibilities. “He puts himself out there, where he's accessible to the citizens of Clarksburg,” says Martin Howe, Clarksburg city manager. “He's caring and open-minded to people, and responsive to their concerns.”

For example, faced with a glass factory closing and a faltering coal mining business in the Clarksburg area, Hunt helped attract new employers, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which built its largest facility, a Criminal Justice Information Services division, employing 3,000 people. To make his community more attractive to the agency, Hunt worked with other council members to annex a property that the FBI had considered buying in the mid-1990s and then rallied Harrison County to hold its largest bond issue for constructing new schools. Before the FBI's inquiry, Hunt pushed for a major upgrade of the city's water filtration system — all of which qualified the municipality as a viable candidate for the site.

Hunt also was instrumental in creating and administering the city's demolition program, which has eliminated 50 abandoned and dilapidated properties in the last year. Hunt says expanding beyond the town's borders is difficult because of the mountainous terrain. Because the city was in need of additional parking, eliminating the dilapidated properties has yielded common parking areas, green spaces and new developments.

The city contacts owners to see if they need assistance demolishing a problem property, offering asbestos abatement services and low-interest loans for demolition services. The loans are available through Clarksburg and the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, where Hunt serves as a field manager. “Because the city can obtain lower costs by contracting for eight to 10 jobs at once, the property owner gets a better deal than hiring a demolition company on his own,” Hunt says.

A local church, which had purchased several neighboring properties, cleared the lots and built parking, thanks to the demolition program, Hunt says. Many neighboring property owners have begun to spruce up their homes once the dilapidated properties have been removed.

In the last five years, Clarksburg has demolished more than 200 unsightly properties, while using $650,000 from the development fund. Corresponding crimes involving drug use in the abandoned properties has been reduced as well, Hunt says.

Most everything Hunt has accomplished for Clarksburg in the last year and in the last 20 years of his public service, has been a matter of rejecting prejudice and hatred, embracing inclusiveness and realizing what he calls “the power of we.” “I feel like my value is in putting people together,” he says. “I feel I can sometimes help open a door.”

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer.