Monday, November 08, 1999

City manager is scapegoat for council

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Shirey's getting a bum rap.

        Before, during and now after the election, present and future council members blamed the city manager for all of Cincinnati's woes, from slow downtown development to cracks in the sidewalks.

        I'm no unabashed fan of the guy's decisions. I've often disagreed with them in this space. But I do like John Shirey's style. He is a by-the-book, straight-shooting professional. He's honest and he has integrity.

        Yet, Cincinnati's council members seem bent on continually using him as a scapegoat. That's wrong. And it contributes to divisiveness and a lack of direction — two attributes in abundance at City Hall.

        As a new council forms, I suggest that its members take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for the welfare of the city. After all, unlike the position of city manager, council seats are where the power sits.

Small-claims court
        The constant blaming of John Shirey has helped transform council chambers into a highly public kangaroo court. He faces charges that are without merit.

        Here's the way I see the persecution of the city manager:

        Charge: He's to blame for the slow progress of downtown development.

        Defense: Council, not the city manager, changed its mind umpteen times on countless downtown projects, particularly Fountain Square West. In 1998, council, not the city manager, prematurely pulled the plug on the Renfro-Faison plan to develop the riverfront, delaying progress for nearly a year. Big-business' allies on council claim John Shirey hinders development with too many rules and regulations. Council approves procedures effecting development, including the rules for remodeling historic structures and making requests for zoning changes. The city manager and his staff are obliged to enforce those rules.

        Charge: He is hard to get along with. He has poisoned the working relationship between the city administration and City Council. In short, he doesn't work well with others.

        Defense: Council members can't work together with anyone. Themselves included. They are the boss. John Shirey is their employee. He follows their orders. Still, he is nobody's lackey. He refuses to do council members' bidding unless the request makes good sense, is good for the city and is on the up-and-up. He is not a lapdog to special interests, big business or political parties. He's the city manager of Cincinnati, not the Cincinnati Business Committee.

        Charge: Projected budget deficits for the year 2004 are his fault.

        Defense: Council, not the city manager, has final approval of the budget. During debates over the 1999-2000 budget, council went on a spending spree against the city manager's recommendations. Forty-eight items adding $14.6 million in additional expenditures — i.e. pet projects — were tacked on to the $1.8 billion budget. The city manager has warned that if the city doesn't curb its spending Cincinnati will be broke in the new millennium. City Council should heed his warning.

Blame game
        Blaming someone else for your self-made troubles is terribly immature. For its new term, City Council needs to grow up.

        Council's nine members, and only those nine members, are responsible for moving the city forward. It's time to quit pointing fingers, stop dithering and get to work. Set goals. Establish priorities. Be realistic. Don't submit the usual grocery list of 100-plus piddling projects. Pick five big ones. And get them done — through teamwork.

        During the last election, council candidates stressed accountability. If the winners truly want to be accountable, they will stop wasting time trying to make a case against John Shirey. Instead, they must start working with the city manager to make Cincinnati even better.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.