Sunday, April 27, 2003

Lemmie still a fascinating figure, but honeymoon is over

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Valerie Lemmie works with assistant city managers in her office at City Hall earlier this month. She's one year into her job as Cincinnati's city manager.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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It was mid-December, and Valerie Lemmie was even more behind schedule than usual, running 45 minutes late to a speech at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce - which she twice called "Northern Virginia."

Clearly exasperated, she explained that she had been trying all morning to talk some sense into council members.

One year into her job as the first city manager under Cincinnati's "strong mayor" experiment, Lemmie has had a difficult balancing act.

On one end are nine strong-willed council members who agree on little except this: The bureaucracy needs to be more responsive - to neighborhoods, to developers, to minorities.

On the other are 6,000 city employees who have seen council members and city managers come and go, with their jobs relatively unchanged.

Left in the middle, Lemmie has approached the job with the kind of self-assurance that comes from a leader who wants to keep her job but isn't afraid to get fired.

"More than any other city manager I've worked with, she came to this job with a strong sense of how to do public administration. It is a skill and an art, just as politics is," said Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University who has worked in and around City Hall under seven city managers, dating back to E. Robert Turner in 1972. "I almost see her as a walking public administration textbook."

The boycott
Certainly there was never a quid pro quo with the collaborative agreement. But when I got here, there was certainly the expectation that it would take some issues off the table, and would be viewed as a sign of good faith by the city. That hasn't happened.'

Her performance
'A city manager is evaluated every day, both by City Council and by public opinion. ... To the extent I even ask for a raise, it would certainly be no more than the 3 percent everyone else got.'

Her future
'Someday, I'd like to take my government knowledge into the nonprofit sector, because that's where the change is going to come from.'

In her first year at City Hall, Valerie Lemmie has literally changed the face - or faces - of city government. Her key outside hires include five African-Americans and five women. They are:

• Transportation and engineering director Eileen Enabnit, from special projects manager in Dayton.

• Citizen Complaint Authority executive director Nathanael L. Ford, from Lucas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

• Assistant city manager for development Deborah C. Holston, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

• City solicitor J. Rita McNeil, from Dayton law director.

• Assistant to the city manager for public information Meg Olberding, from public relations manager at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

• Small Business Division manager Alicia B. Townsend, from director of the Greater Cincinnati Microenterprise Initiative.

• Assistant City Manager Rashad M. Young, from same position in Dayton.

Among the top city officials who have departed during Lemmie's tenure are: planning director Elizabeth A. Blume (position eliminated); Office of Contract Compliance director David A. Chapman (position eliminated); Transportation and Engineering director John F. Deatrick (took job in Washington, D.C.); Solicitor Fay D. Dupuis (retired); chief assistant city solicitor Robert H. Johnstone Jr. (retired); Office of Environmental Services director Dennis Murphy (position eliminated); general services director Kevin A. Shepard (resigned for personal reasons); Assistant Police Chief Ronald J. Twitty (left as part of plea agreement).

Lemmie speaks her own dialect in the language of public administration, often talking in quick, evenly paced, run-on sentences with phrases like "top-performing organizations" and "value-added services."

So it was somewhat out of character - but perhaps understandable - for her to deliver the kind of blunt assessment of city politics she gave that December day while safely across the river.

The single biggest challenge to her authority in her first year on the job had erupted that morning. City Council had just received the Fraternal Order of Police contract - and found that the city manager had negotiated away the civil service reform provisions voters approved in a 2001 charter amendment.

Her cell phone started ringing at 6:45 a.m., city phone records show. By 7 a.m., she had already called her assistant city manager, the city solicitor and the mayor at home.

Apologizing for her tardiness at the Kentucky luncheon, Lemmie explained that she had spent all morning explaining the complexities of labor law to council members. (Councilman Pat DeWine had screamed and hung up on her earlier that morning.)

City Council was beginning to pick apart her $2 billion budget, with its steep cuts to balance a $35 million deficit.

And she was facing the prospect of having to lay off 47 city employees.

While it's tempting to mark that date as the official end of Lemmie's honeymoon, the first dishes were broken back in July.

Lemmie authorized a press conference to announce an investigation into a crash involving Assistant Police Chief Ronald J. Twitty, Cincinnati's highest-ranking black officer. As the controversy reopened the city's raw racial wounds, Lemmie flew off to a conference in Switzerland. She later admitted that she underestimated the public response, but said she probably would not have handled it any differently.

Lemmie herself said the welcome mat was even shorter. "Did I even get a honeymoon?"

Still, some who work closely with her say they've detected just a little more frustration in the past few months.

"She says to me from time to time, 'It's so hard to do good things in Cincinnati,' " Luken said.

The new strong mayor system, now in its second year, was supposed to provide more of a buffer between the City Council and the city manager. No city manager can be hired or fired without the mayor's say-so, and the annual budget - arguably the most important issue City Council votes on every year - must go through the mayor's office before City Council tears it apart.

Her predecessor, John Shirey, spent the last year of his eight-year reign counting votes. When he got to five - a majority of City Council - he knew he was safe for one more week.

Lemmie just needs to count to one: Mayor Luken.

"The biggest difference between Shirey and Lemmie is that Shirey emitted a sense of permanence, of status quo. And it just seemed like a hunker-down mentality," said Councilman John Cranley. "She was baptized by fire. She's handled herself, even when she's had a conflict with City Council, with the utmost professionalism."

Luken's one-word job evaluation: "Terrific."

In spite of criticism from some quarters that the strong mayor system would weaken the role of the city manager, it seems to have had the opposite effect. But while Lemmie seems ever conscious of the lines of demarcation between setting policy (the purview of City Council) and implementing policy (her domain), City Council doesn't always observe those boundaries.

"There's a time-honored tradition down here: When in doubt, blame the administration," the mayor said. "I view my role in this new system as making sure City Council understands what her role is and treats her fairly. I can't say I've always done a good job of it."

Luken sees his job and Lemmie's job as woven together seamlessly - a "partnership," he calls it. They share office space and talk daily.

But Lemmie made clear she was her own woman last August, when she gave a speech to the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce in which she said the city needs to listen to the leaders of an economic boycott against the city.

Later, the 51-year-old city manager confided that she has little patience for the personal attacks of boycotters and others who stand in front of City Hall protesting.

"I'm at an age where I remember the civil rights movement. I stood outside protesting. But then I made a decision to come inside, to go to college, to work to change the system from the inside. They're still on the outside, protesting.

"It's what you do, not what you say. I would ask them, 'How many jobs have you gotten for African-Americans? How many have you trained, so that they have upward mobility? How many people have you encouraged to stay in school, and get a good education, and help to get a scholarship for?' "

For Lemmie, the answer to the first question is at least five.

That's the number of African-Americans she has appointed to top positions in city government in just her first year. Two came with her from Dayton. All came from the outside.

"You don't change the culture by recycling the people who are here," she said.

But there may be another reason for Lemmie's penchant for hiring Daytonians. Slow to trust new people, she has a private and reserved side that belies her quick-to-hug demeanor. She's gone through three executive secretaries in just a year.

"She has high expectations. Very high. Almost to the point of being unrealistic," said Rashad Young, a 26-year-old from Dayton hired as Lemmie's chief lieutenant last year. "I probably know her as well as well as anyone here, and there are things that I don't know about her. She's a very complicated person."

As a result, Lemmie has centralized authority in the city manager's office. The police and fire chiefs report directly to her.

Lemmie's personnel moves have all come with the full support of City Council. And while few have been openly critical, the whispers at City Hall are deafening. One target is Young and his $106,000 salary.

William M. Gustavson is a former safety director and assistant city solicitor. Now in private practice, he represents many city employees who say they've been treated unfairly in the past year.

"There is an undercurrent and a feeling among some employees, and a sense of resentment, when they've spent their entire careers in an organization, working their way to the top, and someone comes in from the outside. It makes them feel like they're being diminished and minimized," he said.

Lemmie said the constant buzz about her hiring practices provides another example that, in Cincinnati, everything is about race.

"Of a 6,000-member organization, we bring in a handful of people - and that gets all the attention," she said. She noted that four other top officials were promoted from within. (All are white men.)

"I've always felt that I had to be twice as good to get half the credit. Women and African-Americans have had so hard of a time getting here to begin with. And then when we get here, no matter how many times you do it well, and do it right, people still have questions. 'Well, yeah, but can she do this?'

"At the end of the day, it's not about color," she said. "Firefighter Armstrong's funeral - that wasn't about color, was it?"

As she brought up the subject of the March death of firefighter Oscar Armstrong III, she revealed this rare bit of personal information: Her younger brother - her only sibling - died at age 21 in an auto accident in St. Louis nearly three decades ago.

His birthday would have been four days after Armstrong's funeral. "It's still difficult for me to talk about that without getting emotional," she said. "You pray and you talk to him and you think sometimes about what it would have been like."

Asked about her parents and her St. Louis upbringing, Lemmie became a bit more uncomfortable. She brought the conversation back to Armstrong, about city government, about public service.

Lemmie does let her hair down, but only occasionally and only at a safe distance. Last November, she was spotted in a Dayton nightclub with two Dayton city commissioners and a state representative, belting karaoke tunes. What was she singing? "The Temptations and the Supremes, of course."

After a year in town, she's settled into an East End condo, in which every room is decorated with artwork from a different continent. Though well traveled and outgoing by day, she dines alone - and prefers it that way.

Lemmie's enigmatic personality and the separation between her personal and private lives seem to make her all the more intriguing. One of the most frequent questions council members hear from constituents is, "What's Valerie Lemmie like?"

Every day, she gets invitations to about 10 different events - trade groups, community councils, women's clubs and charity fund-raisers. She turns down almost all of them.

"If I weren't city manager, nobody would care what I had to say."

At the speech in Northern Kentucky - on that day when the FOP contract blew up - she gave the crowd an uncharacteristically blunt description of her philosophy.

Being city manager, she said, is like the parable of the old man, the young boy and the donkey. As they rode into town, the townspeople criticized no matter which one of them rode the donkey. Some thought the boy shouldn't have to walk, others thought the old man should get to ride, and still others thought it was terrible for the donkey if they both got on top.

So the man and the boy decided to pick up the donkey and carry it. Crossing a bridge, they lost their footing, and the donkey fell in the river and drowned.

The moral of the story, Lemmie told the Kentucky crowd, is this:

"If you try to please everyone, you'll lose your ass."


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