MOUNT VERNON – Amber Keener never thought she'd get into politics.
And even when she did, she never thought she'd arrive on the scene this soon.
But here she was, Mount Vernon's newest at-large city council member, sworn into office Monday morning with her family at her side.
Keener was appointed by the Knox County Republican Central Committee last Thursday to fill the seat vacated by Tanner Salyers on June 8. Salyers, elected in 2019, was appointed by the central committee to become the next Knox County Recorder, following John Lybarger's retirement May 31.
Keener, a Republican, was set to run for her first term in office this November, as one of four candidates competing for council's three at-large seats. She will still need to run this fall – except now, she won't be an outsider.
"I hope to still hold my seat in November. I’m still campaigning – I still have plenty of stickers ..." Keener said with a laugh. "I view this as an awesome opportunity to learn before hopefully I get re-elected."
There will still be four individuals running for three at-large seats this fall. The Knox County Republican Central Committee appointed Mel Severns, a longtime community member and current registrar at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, to fill the newly vacant spot on the ballot last Thursday, Committee Chairman Thom Collier said.
Don Carr, who sits on the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, was also considered for the appointment.
Keener and Severns will run alongside Republican incumbent Janis Seavolt and Democrat incumbent Julia Warga for the three at-large positions on Nov. 2.
When considering who to appoint to fill Salyers’ vacant council seat, Collier said the committee’s decision was clear.
“(Keener) had already filed to run, so we knew we had an interested, active candidate who has been to council meetings, served on local city committees, and had been appointed by the mayor to serve on some of those,” Collier said.
“She has been very active in the community, and we knew she was the likely candidate to replace Tanner on council.”
Because Keener’s name was already on the November ballot, Collier said the committee did not consider any other names for Salyers’ replacement.
“It just made sense that she would fill the vacancy,” Collier said.
When Salyers announced he would be stepping down from council, Keener said she was prepared to take the reins.
“I’ve been preparing to run since January,” Keener said. “And so I didn’t shift gears very much, honestly. I just viewed it as a sooner opportunity to take office.”
Over the last year, Keener said she has been attending council meetings and speaking with department heads to better understand the responsibilities of city government.
“There was some thought about holding off and still just running in November, given timing and everything, but I think I’ve already worked so hard for it, and I figured I should at least put my name in for the appointment,” Keener said. “It didn’t really change a whole lot of what I was doing ... it just moved up the timeline.”
Keener, 36, is a West Virginia native. The daughter of a pastor, she said she moved 46 times during her childhood. But she’s spent the last 12 years living in Mount Vernon, starting a family and getting involved in the community. Keener said she finally feels like she’s home.
“I’ve lived in this town for 12 years. So that’s a big shoutout to the town, that it kept me for this long,” she said with a laugh.
The decision to run for city council earlier this year was personal, Keener said. She has five young children, and she wants their hometown to be “a place that they want to return to.”
“They were my motivation,” she said Monday, watching as her children perused City Hall and met Mayor Matt Starr. “I want this city to be a city that they want to return to after they finish college. You know, they have the opportunity to go to multiple higher-education schools in town, but I want it to be a place that they want to return to, and that is attractive.”
Keener expressed concern about the city’s housing shortage, and also said “jobs and parks” would be priority issues for her in-office. She hopes to strengthen communication between the city and its residents, which is something she said she’s already taken part in over the years.
“About 12 months before I ever even thought about joining city council, I was getting calls about, ‘Hey, this road is shut (down). Why is it shut?’ ‘Hey, this is happening, why is this happening?’” Keener recalled.
“I was people’s go-to for information, and I didn’t even know how that happened. Like, how was I this source of information about the city? At the time, it didn’t make sense. And now that I’m (appointed) to this position, I actually have better answers to give them ...
“It seemed like a natural transition. Ironically, now I will get paid a little bit for all this hunting for answers that I’ve done.”
After graduating from Liberty University with a master’s degree in military history, Keener propelled herself into community life. She was appointed to Main Street Mount Vernon’s events board, where she helps coordinate events downtown, and she has also been involved with the Mount Vernon Players, Knox County’s longest-running live theater troupe.
Last fall, Keener helped organize the Healing Field at Ariel-Foundation Park, where 500 flags were planted to honor veterans, active duty and reserve military members, as well as first responders and COVID-19 heroes. She also helped organize the city’s Festival of Lights last winter, in an effort to “bring some hope and holiday spirit to the town.”
Keener currently works part-time as the Mount Vernon Arts Consortium’s programming staffer.
“Professionally, I really leaned more into the volunteerism than anything else,” Keener said. “I almost feel like that volunteerism has created these opportunities professionally. I never would’ve thought about going into politics.”
But here she is, thrust onto city council six months earlier than expected. Keener said she expects the beginning to be a learning process – but one that will pay dividends down the road.
“I’m looking forward to being in (during) the summer,” Keener said. “I think that a lot gets done at city council. I didn’t know a year ago what really happened at city council, when I started attending meetings, and I think that’s something that a lot of community members suffer from, is like, ‘What does city council do?’ And they do so much. They determine taxes and your utilities and which roads close and when, and what repairs get done.
“So it’s important to me, to be in earlier, because I hope to communicate to the public even more what this body does. Because it’s really not widely understood. I had lots of government classes, I felt like I knew what government did – I had no idea. I had no clue. I still don’t really think I know … And I know it, I have a lot to learn (as well).”
Keener will begin her tenure on city council immediately. Council’s next meeting will be Monday, June 28.