Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Shirey embattled but still standing

'I am the convenient scapegoat,' city manager says

By John Johnson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

City Manager John Shirey with Councilman Phil Heimlich, a Shirey critic.
(Gary Landers photos
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        John Shirey doesn't watch much TV, except for sports. So he didn't see a single episode of Survivor.

        “The name is kind of intriguing,” muses Cincinnati's city manager. “Maybe I can identify with being a survivor on some island.”

        John Williams, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, thinks so.

        “He's somewhere between a survivor and a glutton for punishment,” Mr. Williams says. “He clearly has the worst job in the community, if not one of the worst jobs in the country. I have said to him, "They must teach you in city managers' school to be a punching bag.'”

        The better, perhaps, to withstand pummeling by city council members, or the news media, or the police union, or various community factions, or whoever's hammering him at the moment. In the midst of it all, rumors regularly surface that he's on the verge of being fired.

        And yet, on Wednesday Mr. Shirey, who makes $149,604 a year, will mark his seventh anniversary as Cincinnati's chief administrator. Not since C.A. Harrell's nine-year stint ended in 1963 has a city manager served so long.

Shirey with Councilwoman Minette Cooper. She says he needs to communicate better with council.
  • What Shirey says
  • What others say about him
        Is the 51-year-old Mr. Shirey having fun yet?

        “I think there's that side of my personality which makes it possible for me to continue in this position without it ever being fun,” he says, without smiling. “And this job clearly is not fun. It is a job, though, where I can feel satisfied if I see things being accomplished, if I see us making progress.”

        He sees progress. But in a perfect world, it wouldn't be so hard to get things done, there would be less second-guessing and criticism, he wouldn't have to battle his own cynicism, and his kids wouldn't worry about being uprooted.

        Mr. Shirey, of course, is well aware he doesn't live in a perfect world.

        He lives in Cincinnati.

        A Wednesday afternoon in October. Behind the red sandstone walls of City Hall, Republican Charlie Winburn has the floor at council.

        “Mr. Shirey, your administration, basically, is shameful,” he says.

        The topic a landfill on Gray Road in Winton Place. A day earlier, nearby residents complained that the dump has been expanded despite council action a year ago to limit its operations.

        Mr. Shirey, seated in his regular spot under a chandelier in council chambers, stares expressionless at Mr. Winburn as he vents.

        “The administration is like a tornado out of control ... How is it that the administration can continue to thumb its nose at council ... The administration has created one embarrassment after another ... It's a leadership problem ...”

Francis Mullins, left, shows family photos to Shirey, daughter Elizabeth, wife Marilyn and son Greg.

  • Occupation: Cincinnati city manager since 1993.
  • Born: July 10, 1949.
  • Home: Hyde Park.
  • Family: Married 21 years to Marilyn Shirey; children Jill, 19; Greg, 15; Elizabeth, 12.
  • Education: Bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, Purdue University, 1971; master's in public administration, University of Southern California, 1973.
  • Professional: City of Long Beach, Calif., assistant city manager, 1987-93; Los Angeles County, assistant chief administrative officer, 1986-87, and deputy chief administrative officer, 1985-86; Community Development Commission, Los Angeles County, assistant executive director, 1982-85, and acting executive director, 1985; National League of Cities, legislative counsel, 1979-82; City of Long Beach, intergovernmental relations director, 1976-79, and legislative analyst, 1975-76; City of Monterey Park, Calif., administrative assistant to the city manager, 1972-75.
  • Interests: An elder at Walnut Hills Christian Church; auto racing fan; certified track and field official; attends children's school and sports activities.

        After the meeting, Mr. Shirey walks slowly down two floors and into his office. He looks drained. As usual, he's wearing a dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie.He talks slowly, deliberately, in a low-pitch monotone that matches his low-key persona.

        “I take hits all the time,” he says, sitting at a large round conference table. “And I don't know why I take hits. This is a big city. It's a city that has lots of problems. It's a city that's doing very well considering all those problems.

        “I am the convenient scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. ... I'm not the one who failed to follow through on this Gray Road landfill issue. But I'm going to get the blame because my staff's not sitting in that chair (in council).”

        Mayor Charlie Luken walks in. Mr. Luken likes Mr. Shirey, but agrees the landfill issue was handled poorly.

        “The problem is,” Mr. Luken says, “every time there's a problem, we get into the issue of, are we going to fire the manager? That's not the (appropriate) response. The response is to fix the problem.”

        Attacking specific problems is what John Shirey does best, according to many people, including the man he replaced as city manager, Gerald “Jerry” Newfarmer.

        “John thinks in terms of to-do lists "Give me a project, give me a list of things to do and I'll get it done for you,' rather than in terms of, "Who do I need to schmooze with this week?' That's just John,” Mr. Newfarmer says.

        Mr. Newfarmer was forced out by council in 1993 after 2 1/2 years but he still lives in Cincinnati. He considers Mr. Shirey a friend.

        Mr. Shirey is focused and serious, Mr. Newfarmer says. But he is not “a relationship guy.”

        Mr. Shirey says he's disappointed his relationship with his bosses — the nine elected members of council — has been so rocky. Under the city charter, council sets policy; the city manager implements it, and runs the city's daily operations.

        Four elections since 1993 have shuffled council's mix of personalities. What hasn't changed Each member has different ideas and priorities.

Shirey leavs chambers after a council meeting
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        After last year's elections, Mr. Luken, a Democrat, said something should be done about the “poisonous” relationship between Mr. Shirey and city council.

        “And I have tried to do something,” says Mr. Luken, “by saying that John Shirey is doing a good job and deserves our support.

        “I have become convinced that he's a positive force here,” the mayor says. “And that some of the problems he has faced have been the result of council misbehavior rather than his own doing.

        Council members cite a number of concerns with Mr. Shirey's performance. Democrats Paul Booth and Minette Cooper say he needs to improve hisrelationship with council, and communicate better.

        Republican Phil Heimlich faults the manager for refusing to aggressively investigate alleged fraud and corruption in city-funded programs, such as Genesis Redevelopment Inc.

        Mr. Winburn, a Republican, has been among the most vocal critics.

        “If there was a vote today to fire Mr. Shirey, I would vote to fire him,” he says. But he adds that he will not instigate such action.

        He believes Mr. Shirey's performance will be an issue in the 2001 elections, when voters will directly elect a mayor for the first time in more than 70 years. (Now, the mayor is the top vote-getter on council.) The “strong mayor” will have the power to initiate hiring and firing the city manager.

        One thing everybody on city council seems to agree on It's a job they wouldn't want.

        Three years ago, he was a finalist for city manager of San Diego; he was passed over. A year later, Long Beach officials wanted him to apply for city manager; he declined to pursue it.

        “I'm convinced one of the reasons John has stayed is because his wife and children have asked him to hang in there,” the Chamber's Mr. Williams says.

        On a weekday evening, the Shireys arrive at Walnut Hills Christian Church to have photos taken for the church directory.

        Fifteen-year-old Greg's hair is neatly parted on the left, like his dad's. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth is tall; she's got basketball practice later. Jill, 19, who is away at college, is not present.

        Marilyn Shirey, John's wife of 21 years, pushes Greg's hair into place. Then photographer Mark Shields focuses on the father.

        “John, I'm gonna give you a raise,” Mr. Shields says, handing him a 3-inch stack of cardboard to stand on.

        “Better than council does,” Mr. Shirey quips.

        They all smile. Even Mr. Shirey. It's genuinely happy smile. One rarely seen in City Hall.

        Mrs. Shirey says her husband's personal style is much like his management style Low-key but dedicated.

        “He's not a guy who relaxes easily. His mind is on work a lot,” she says at their Hyde Park home.

        They met when she was working in community development for the city of Redondo Beach, Calif., and Mr. Shirey was with the city of Long Beach. She now works with struggling third-graders at Kilgour School, which two of their children attended.

        The family's free time often is spent at the children's sporting or school events. Mr. Shirey usually makes it a point to be there.

        “When there is a lot of controversy, it's very hard on the family,” Mrs. Shirey says. “No child wants to see their father upset, or to feel he's in trouble, somehow. Even though it goes with the territory, it can still be uncomfortable.”

        Rumors that his job may be in danger are especially difficult, she says.

        “While (the children) know that there's always the possibility we could move, and that typically a city manager doesn't stay forever in one job, what they want is for that very thing.

        “They love it here. We all love it here.”

        Mr. Shirey says his biggest challenge as city manager has been balancing the myriad conflicting interests.

        “As my son said one time, "Dad, I've noticed that every decision you make is the wrong one, in somebody's opinion.'

        “It's true.” Mr. Shirey says.

        The toughest decisions — and some of the harshest criticism — have revolved around police incidents.

        When 18-year-old Pharon Crosby resisted arrest in 1995, a TV crew captured the incident on videotape. Accusations of police brutality deeply divided the community. Mr. Shirey's decision to suspend two officers (later reversed by an independent arbitrator) spurred 1,500 angry police supporters to march to City Hall.

        “There's a deodorant commercial that says never let 'em see you sweat,” says the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church, who sat on a panel chosen by Mr. Shirey to review investigations of the Crosby arrest. “I think that's John Shirey. As intense as the pressure sometimes gets, he stays calm.”

        The Crosby case soured the relationship between the city manager and the Fraternal Order of Police, culminating in the police union's April 1999 vote of “no confidence” in Mr. Shirey.

        That vote followed Mr. Shirey's order that two officers temporarily be pulled from street duty after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist, Michael Carpenter. The officers, one of whom later resigned, said they fired because they feared for their lives.

        “(Mr. Shirey's) untrustworthiness and the contempt and arrogance that he has shown our police officers since the day he arrived in Cincinnati is appalling,” Keith Fangman, the FOP president, said at the time.

        But Mr. Fangman, who began FOP contract negotiations with Mr. Shirey's administration this month, says the union's relationship with the manager has improved.The thaw, in fact, began with the Carpenter case.

        Mr. Shirey ordered Officer Brent McCurley — the white officer who was the focus of many protests — receive a written reprimand for tactical errors, and mandatory training.

        “There was an incredible amount of pressure exerted against John Shirey by some in the black community to rip Officer McCurley to pieces, and at a minimum fire him,” Mr. Fangman says. “He didn't kowtow to that pressure.”

        In Mr. Shirey's view, his most unfair critics have been the news media, in particular the city's daily newspapers.

        In August, he seethed when the Enquirer reported that a City Hall employee had filed a federal race discrimination complaint against him and two black supervisors in his office. Mr. Shirey called an editorial about the suit “another hatchet job on me.”

        “If anybody can attack you, and it's not justified, and there's an article in the paper about it, how do you keep from being cynical?” he says.

        Mr. Shirey rarely loses his temper when people disagree with administrative decisions, but “this was an attack on my integrity.” He visited the newspaper office to let his feelings be known.

        He hasn't been happy with newspaper coverage of City Hall since he arrived, he says. “I feel that the papers are generally out to make the city government look bad.”

        He says he became a city manager for idealistic reasons. Public service, he felt, was a way to give back.

        “I think I still hold some of that idealism, but I have to tell you I think it's less. The more I'm set up for criticism, the more that I'm second-guessed on everything I do, the more I have to continually be mediating conflict, some of that idealism gets lost and some of that cynicism creeps in.”

        After the Enquirer articles ran, he got calls from “prominent” people — he declined to name them — concerned about how he was feeling. Strangers, too, often offer support, he says.

        “It's clear people empathize with my job. It's probably one of the things that keeps me going.”

        Another “I fall back on faith once in a while when the going gets rough.”

        The Rev. Jerry Murphy, his pastor at Walnut Hills Christian Church, says, “His belief that God is there with him to give him strength is very strong. Recently, there have been a couple of times when he has sent me an e-mail. It's been one of these tough things going on, and he'll ask me to pray for him as his pastor.”

        The congregation also knows when the pressure's on. “We have a prayer box where people write out prayer concerns. There's usually one in there for John at those times.”

        “Cincinnati soon will have a new city manager, and we'll know who is to blame for things again,” the article in the Enquirer begins.

        It was 1954. The new manager was C.A. Harrell.

        He served nine years until, as the Enquirer noted, council “pulled the rug out from under him.”

        Mr. Shirey has served longer than any city manager since then.

        “Rumors are always swirling about him, because council members keep talking about him,” Mayor Luken says.

        Mr. Shirey, Cincinnati's 13th city manager, says he doesn't lose sleep over it.

        “I understand that council members will disagree with me and become unhappy with my performance,” he says. “What I do on a daily basis is, I do what I think is right. That's the only way I can be guided.”

        Mr. Luken recalls what Sylvester Murray, city manager from 1979-85, said about the job A manager starts with a certain number of chips, like in poker. He doles out those chips throughout his tenure. Then one day, he looks down and they're gone.

        “I think,” Mr. Luken says, “John Shirey has managed to find some more chips from time to time.”
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