Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Lemmie loved in Dayton

She could be Cincinnati's city manager

By Howard Wilkinson and Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To hear those who know her tell it, Valerie Lemmie, the Dayton city manager who is Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken's choice for the same job here, is something akin to a hammer wrapped in velvet.

        “She has a beautiful smile, but she is tough as nails,” said William Schooler, a long-time neighborhood activist in Dayton's racially diverse northwest side.

        “This is a person who is as accessible as can be, not at all standoffish,” said Mr. Schooler, who heads the city's Northwest Priority Board, which equates to one of Cincinnati's neighborhood community councils.

        “But she means business. She's a professional. She gets the job done.”

        Since 1996, her job has been running a city government of 3,000 employees and 166,000 people — a city that has spent the past few decades in a sometimes rough and rugged transition from a machine-driven smokestack town to a smaller but more diverse, service-oriented, high-tech center.

        It is not an easy task. In the three years before Ms. Lemmie got to Dayton, the city had six city managers.

        Now, the 49-year-old city manager is negotiating the terms of a contract that would bring her to Cincinnati, and Mr. Luken is expected to announce an agreement today.

        Ms. Lemmie makes $169,000 in salary and benefits — more than any Cincinnati city manager has been paid to run a city twice Dayton's size.

        Though she runs the country's 116th largest city, Ms. Lemmie has a national — and even international — reputation as a city manager.

        “At a relatively young age, people around the country have noticed her,” said A. James Barnes, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “City manager jobs are among the toughest in the country. And she's someone who can see the bigger picture, and see the possibilities.”

        If hired away from Dayton, Ms. Lemmie would be coming to a city that has an almost identical racial makeup as the one she left behind — both Ohio cities have a black population of 43 percent.

        But Dayton, in recent years, has seen racial tensions subside; and while the east side of Dayton is primarily white and the west side largely black, the number of racially mixed neighborhoods has grown in recent decades.

        It's in the neighborhoods where Ms. Lemmie has cultivated much of her support. A devout believer in citizen participation, she makes sure city departments attend every neighborhood meeting. When the city embarked on a search for a new police chief, she picked 14 people from around the city to serve on an advisory committee.

        “I think one of her best skills is putting people together in a room and pointing them in the right direction so they can get things done,” said Dayton City Commissioner Dean Lovelace.

        But she can also be a hands-on manager.

        “If you're not comfortable with someone who gets into your personal space, you're probably not going to be comfortable with Valerie Lemmie,” Mr. Lovelace said.

        Dayton's most significant problems over the past 30 years have been largely economic — the city watched as large manufacturers closed their doors, as population fled to the suburbs and as once-vibrant downtown retail businesses followed the people out of the central city.

        In the each of last two years, Dayton has built more new houses than its suburbs — reversing a long-standing trend.

        The city also built the Fifth-Third Ball Park, where the Class A Dayton Dragons play, and the Riverscape on the banks of the Great Miami River, a park space that is attracting new development in the once-barren warehouse district of northern downtown.

        While it may be difficult to tell where the credit for Dayton's renaissance lies, veteran city managers say it's their job to make the elected officials look good.

        “A lot of cities in Ohio have built baseball stadiums,” said former Dayton Mayor Michael Turner. “Ours is the only one that came in on budget.”

        Mr. Turner, a Republican, is one of Ms. Lemmie's biggest fans.

        “Valerie Lemmie is the type of professional, that when she walks into your office and tells you about the details of a deal, you can take it to the bank,” he said.

        Even some who have been critical of Ms. Lemmie's administration concede she's left her mark on Dayton.

        “There's no question she has had a big impact,” said Dick Zimmer, who spent 17 years on the five-member city commission in the 1970s and 1980s and returned to office this month.

        “People here really believe the city is turning around and heading in the right direction,” said Mr. Zimmer, an east-sider. “There are a lot of reasons for that — the economy in the country was pretty good in the 1990s; there have been all kinds of public-private partnerships to get things done.

        “But Valerie Lemmie can take a lot of credit, too. She governs with a pretty strong hand. She's in charge.”

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