Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Can Shirey do job with ax over his head?

Attacks put effectiveness in doubt

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey came to his office at City Hall on Monday as he has most weeks since he was hired in 1993. Unlike those Monday mornings, this one was different. His job was obviously and publicly on the line. Today may be even worse.

        Councilwoman Alicia Reece has invited Mr. Shirey to her employment committee for a public discussion of his performance. Council plans an up or down vote on Mr. Shirey's future on Wednesday; at least four of nine council members want to fire him because they say he has not been responsive enough to them.

        Whether the 51-year-old Mr. Shirey will keep his job is uncertain. But it is clear that his effectiveness as the city's chief executive officer is increasingly in doubt.

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, who opposes firing Mr. Shirey, said he thinks that while Mr. Shirey is still able to do the job, his impact on personnel and public policy issues has probably suffered.

        “Administratively, he can still perform,” Mr. Luken said. “He can come in every day and do what he has to do to run the city administration.

        “Where he has suffered is in his public image,” the mayor said. “He has lost some clout.”

Mr. Shirey's predecessor, Jerry Newfarmer, who was Cincinnati city manager from 1990-93 before he was fired, said other city employees live in limbo when council members regularly attempt to fire a city manager.

        “It depends upon the person, but department heads run for cover,” Mr. Newfarmer said. “When there is discussion in public among council members about terminating a manager, it is debilitating.”

        Mr. Newfarmer said city employees who serve at the will of Mr. Shirey will worry about their future.

        “They're intimidated or paralyzed,” he said. “You're not focused on doing the work of the public. That's why normally these kinds of discussions should not be held in public.”

        As president of the Charter Committee, Mr. Newfarmer has urged council to discuss Mr. Shirey's tenure

        in private. Council can't do that, given a judge's ruling last year that private sessions of council were unlawful.

        Mr. Shirey insisted on Monday evening that department heads and city employees are not affected by council deliberations or critical newspaper headlines.

        “They are all professionals who feel they have a job to do and serious responsibilities,” Mr. Shirey said. “The trash is getting picked up. The water is on. The parks are being mowed. Sewer water is getting cleaned. And police are responding to 911 calls.

        “I'm always one council meeting from being dismissed.”

        Though her human resources consulting firm works with Fortune 500 companies, Joan Moore, president of the Arbor Consulting Group of Northville, Mich., said comparisons of the perils of corporate and civic leadership are valid.

        “In this world — at this level — everything is perception,” she said.

        “If a board has lost confidence in an individual's ability to manage a situation, it's amazing how early it is that the rumors will get started. People are not going to want to be aligned with a guy who is on his way out.”

        But being a vote away from unemployment goes hand in hand with the top job in Cincinnati, said Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, a monthly magazine based in Washington, D.C., that is circulated primarily to public officials.

        “Cincinnati has been through so many city managers, it's sort of like being the sheriff of Dodge City,” Mr. Ehrenhalt said. “The system is so combative, it would take a toll on any city manager.”

        As the executive directly responsible for administering elected officials' policies and overseeing the delivery of essential city services, most city managers know that few jobs are permanent these days, Mr. Ehrenhalt said.

        Being a city manager is similar to being a beleaguered president of a publicly held company, said Sheldon Kopin, former president and chief operating officer of Totes Inc.

        “I was with a privately held company, so it wasn't the same in my case — but in my last three months before I retired, I was more of an adviser than I was a supervisor,” he said.

        “It's a boiler-room business for Shirey. He reports to council and has nine different bosses. It's not much different from being the chief executive of a public company — but instead of board members as bosses, you have council,” Mr. Kopin said.

        “Instead of an untold number of shareholders, you have voters. That's a lot of bosses.”

        But Mr. Shirey disagreed and said differences between private and public executives are stark. For instance, he said, chief executives help pick company boards and directors are rarely dismissed, while council members are chosen by citizens and frequently lose elections. Meetings are quarterly or every couple of months — unlike council, where meetings are weekly.

        “I don't hold to the analogy that a company chief executive and a board of directors are the same as a city manager and a council,” Mr. Shirey said.

        Living on the edge is probably not an unusual feeling for a city manager in any city, said Michele Frisby, spokesman for the International City/County Management Association, a professional group for managers.

        “We put it this way — your job is only as secure as the next council meeting,” said Ms. Frisby. “A city manager can go to any council meeting and receive a vote of no confidence.

        “It can happen with little advance notice. And it can happen just because of perception.”


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