Who'd trade snow for sun?

Council turned on warmth for Shirey

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sometimes you have to wonder whether some politicians grew up in plastic bubbles.

You can certainly get the impression that some of them haven't seen much of this great big world, especially when you hear some of the things we heard this week when the Enquirer reported that Cincinnati's city manager, John Shirey, was a finalist for the city manager's job in San Diego. Though Mr. Shirey was eliminated as a candidate in San Diego on Friday, at midweek there was still the possibility he could leave.

Two months ago, when Mr. Shirey got his annual performance review, a majority of council decided that Mr. Shirey had not been a good boy and needed to stay after class to learn to behave.

They couldn't make him go to bed without supper, but they did deny him a pay raise, even a little cost-of-living hike.

Last week, when word of Mr. Shirey's job-hunting leaked out, some of the same council members who were escorting him to the woodshed in August, and who have spent much of the past two years doing everything they can to make the city manager's life miserable, were telling reporters that they could not believe that the man was job-hunting - and that he would even consider leaving this, the cosmic center of the universe, for San Diego.

After all, who in their right mind would want to go there?

All that perfect weather. Your children and your children's children would grow up never knowing the term snow emergency.

Beautiful sunsets over an azure ocean. A vibrant downtown, where people go to eat, drink and be merry in the sunshine and under the moonlight. A world-class zoo, where the zoo keepers don't threaten to hold the elephants hostage every time they want more tax dollars, like some Midwestern cities we could name.

The sixth-largest city in the United States, and the second-largest with a city manager form of government. Being city manager in a place like that would mean you have reached the pinnacle of your profession, and when you hang up the spurs, you wouldn't have to look far for a nice retirement home.

San Diego, of all places.

John, what could you be thinking?

Wednesday, when the Shirey business hit the fan, the nine members of council huddled privately to discuss the situation, and part of the discussion was about making Mr. Shirey a counteroffer should San Diego make an offer. As it happened, the discussion was moot by Friday. But it was not clear that Cincinnati would have made a counteroffer. Council's current ruling majority - Republicans Phil Heimlich, Charles Winburn, Jeanette Cissell and Democrats Dwight Tillery and Minette Cooper - were the ones who denied Mr. Shirey a raise, and if they are thoughtful politicians, they should have known there was a potential election-year problem lurking in the Shirey situation.

Recent history shows that exiting city managers and council elections don't mix, particularly when the voting public perceives the city manager as being driven out by unreasonable, self-serving politicians.

Mr. Tillery provides his colleagues with an object lesson in this. Four years ago, he was rolling along merrily as Cincinnati's mayor when he decided that the previous city manager, Gerald Newfarmer, had to go.

Nobody could quite define what Mr. Newfarmer's sins had been. City Hall insiders were convinced it was mostly a matter of Mr. Newfarmer not being willing to play major domo to Mr. Tillery's generalissimo.

At any rate, Mr. Tillery put together five council votes to fire him, just as the council campaign was beginning. To nearly everyone's surprise, many voters seemed bent out of shape about how the city manager was treated; and, on Election Day, they took it out on Mr. Tillery.

Suddenly, he was no longer mayor. A Newfarmer backer, Roxanne Qualls, was.

The lesson learned was simple: When it comes city managers, keep the tar and feathers on hold until after the election.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer. His column appears on Sundays.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE