Politics
12:00 am
Sun August 3, 2014

City manager nominee Black on the verge of reaching "ultimate goal"

It appears that, eight months into his term as Cincinnati’s mayor, John Cranley has found his soul mate.

Amid a flurry of media interviews and press conferences this past week, Cranley introduced his choice to become the city’s next city manager – 51-year-old Harry E. Black, who, for the past two-and-a-half years, has been the finance director of the city of Baltimore.

This week, we will find out if he can be the soul mate of nine members of city council too. And there is every indication that a solid majority of city council members will vote to approve Cranley’s choice. Council members Yvette Simpson and Chris Seelbach are the only two council members who have expressed concerns about Black’s appointment to local news media outlets.

Cranley passed over his friend, Scott Stiles, a long-time city employee who has served as interim city manager since last fall, when city manager Milton Dohoney – who was former mayor Mark Mallory’s guy – resigned after Cranley’s election and saw the hand-writing on the wall.

The choice between Black and Stiles – out of a pool of 19 applicants – was a tough one, Cranley said. In the end, Cranley said in a press conference at his city hall office this week that, in the end, “a fresh set of eyes is helpful to the organization.”

“The tradition has been, and I guess I am continuing the tradition, to bring somebody in from the outside,’’ Cranley said.

Black, who would be Cincinnati's 15 city manager, has a long resume – finance director in his hometown of Baltimore, former chief financial officer for the city of Richmond, Va., where he served an eight-month stint as interim chief administrator officer under Mayor Douglas Wilder, five years as vice president and program manager for a Washington, D.C. architectural firm, and a four-year stint in the District of Columbia government.

But this will be the first time he has served as a city manager.

That doesn’t bother council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who says he will vote for Black’s appointment.

“I like the fact that he has a long range of experience; he has a long financial background,’’ Sittenfeld said. “Baltimore is a bigger city and he has steered their finances well.”

Cranley has been touting Black’s initiative in Baltimore to set up a 10-year financial plan to avoid possible bankruptcy in the future, saying the program, which is in its second year, has already resulted in the first up-grading of Baltimore’s credit rating in a decade.

The city manager, under Cincinnati’s form of government, has a job where he has to balance the agendas of both the mayor and a majority of council, which are not always the same. He is also in charge of all the department heads.

And Black has made it clear he will be holding department heads’ feet to the fire – although, as he told WVXU in an interview last week, “in a collaborative, collegial but very outcome driven way.”

Black said he will take personal responsibility when things aren’t working the way they should.

“The buck stops with the city manager,’’ Black told WVXU. “So if something is not getting done, either something that is expected to be done or the community wants to see being done, then the city manager can only look at him or herself in the mirror.”

Black, Cranley said, “is a guy who believes in measurement and metrics and planning. He is going to be entering into performance management agreements with every department head to make sure, in a collaborative way, that department head set goals and be clearly measured according to those goals.”

Sittenfeld said he gave Cranley credit for taking Black out into the community to meet “a very diverse spectrum of community leaders – east side, west side, black and white, business people. From everything I have heard from some of those people, the reaction was positive.”

Assuming he is confirmed by council this week – and that is a pretty safe assumption – there’s one thing hanging out there that could make his tenure as city manager a short one. And make him the last city manager in its nearly 90 years of the city manager form of government.

Council member Christopher Smitherman – who has said publicly he likes the choice of Black – has introduced a charter amendment which would do away with the city manager and go to a true “strong mayor” form of government, where the mayor would have the power to hire and fire department heads and be the true chief executive officer of the city.

Smitherman’s proposal would create a chief administrative officer who would report only to the mayor and handle much of the day-to-day operations of the city.

The consensus at city hall is that Smitherman won’t be able to get six votes to put his charter amendment on the May 2015 ballot. But Smitherman has said he could mount a petition campaign to place it on the ballot; and he has some considerable experience in ballot initiative campaigns.

If it does land on the ballot and is approved by voters, it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016. At that point, Black – assuming he is still around – could go from the city manager’s position to that chief administrative officer role, if that’s what Cranley wants.

Black, a local government professional, told WVXU last week that one of the reasons he applied for the job was that “in my profession, the ultimate goal is to be a city manager.”

He’s on the verge of achieving it – for however long it lasts.