Sunday, April 12, 2015

Feldman's Legacy

[For the light it throws on the current city manager's role in Portsmouth, I am reposting an article  from 2005 on former city manager Barry Feldman, who was fired and then rehired after the councilmen who fired him were recalled. Feldman went on to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the city manager form of government at the University of Connecticut.  One of his very important conclusions was that city managers must abandon the idea that they can function effectively by being non-political. That was the ideal on which the city manager form of government was founded--that the chief executive in city government should be non-political. If there are cities  where that ideal can be a reality, Portsmouth is definitely  not one of them. Derek Allen showed  almost immediately when he became city manager that he will be politically active and he couldn't survive if he wasn't. As city manager, he is in an untenable position, because his survival depends upon the support of a majority of the council. Just as the city council hired him, they can fire him. He is a better politician and more intelligent than most of the council and he can continue as city manager, but only as long as he has the support of the majority of council. Politics being what politics are, that support will not always be there. He has a six-shooter, but that sixshooter has no bullets, and no matter how much faster he might be on the draw than anyone else on the city council, the dumbest and slowest of them, when they are a majority, can get rid of him because they do have the bullets, constitutionally speaking.  Feldman was one of the smartest city managers Portsmouth ever had, but he got out as soon as he could because he knew the politics of Portsmouth was like Ebola and as smart and political as he was, he didn't have immunity.]

Feldman after being suspended by City Council

     The 1980 newspaper photo above shows Barry Marvin Feldman after he was suspended by the Portsmouth City Council. Feldman was Portsmouth’s city manager for 4 1/2 years, from Jan. 1977 to August 1981. Prior to coming to Portsmouth, he had been city manager in Lincoln Heights, a small, troubled community north of Cincinnati. He had been city manager of Lincoln Heights for only seven months, from April to November of 1975, but for some reason, somebody in Portsmouth thought he was qualified to be city manager of our much larger, much more politically volatile, river city.
     Feldman’s turbulent tenure as city manager illustrates two important lessons about Portsmouth's past. First, he proved that the head of any public agency or institution in Portsmouth – whether it be city manager, mayor, or president of Shawnee State University (think of Clive Veri)– no matter how inexperienced, unqualified, or dishonest he may be (I’m not suggesting Feldman was all three), could remain in his job just as long as he was part, or was at least willing to serve the interests of, Portsmouth’s ruling clique. Because that clique controlled the local media in 1980, and thereby monopolized the news, they controlled the public’s perception of who the good guys and the bad guys were. Right to the end, the Portsmouth Daily Times and WPAY and WNXT portrayed Feldman as a good guy, the heroic victim of three malevolent councilmen.

     Those who saw things differently didn’t have many ways of making their case publicly. Getting a letter-to-the-editor published was virtually their only hope. In a type-written draft of what appears to be an unpublished letter-to-the-editor, Andrew Clausing claimed that not long after he was first elected to the city council, in 1978, the supporters of a controversial mall project were meeting with Feldman without letting Clausing know. “Many times Mr. Feldman and his cohorts had secret meetings,” Clausing wrote, “and your First Ward councilman [Clausing himself] was not even included.” The City Solicitor Richard Schisler, obviously trying to protect Feldman, accused the City Council of firing him without just cause. Clausing claimed they had just cause: Feldman had failed as an administrator. “He is in fact a poor administrator,” Clausing wrote in the draft of his letter, “and the end result will be that you and I will suffer by paying higher taxes, more welfare and less employment.”

Making Fun of Feldman

Clever political cartoonists opposed to Feldman had to settle for passing their drawings from hand to hand, like a samizdat underground flyer in the Soviet Union. There was no chance they would be published in the Daily Times and there were no alternative publications at that time. One anonymous unpublished cartoon from 1980 shows the long-haired Feldman mauling the taxpayers of Portsmouth on behalf of Jacobs Visconti and Jacobs, the Cleveland developer.

  Feldman axing taxpayers

     In 1980, the City Council fired Feldman not once, not twice but three times, but the city solicitor and a court of common pleas judge and the Citizens for Good Government, a front for Portsmouth’s ruling clique, managed to keep Feldman in office through legal and political maneuvering. In another cartoon, Feldman and his backers are depicted as being protected from the wrath of the citizenry by the umbrella of the courts.
     In fact, the ruling clique used the media to turn the wrath of the electorate against the three councilmen and used legal maneuvering to keep Feldman in office long enough to recall the councilmen. Under the council-manager form of government, the city manager is supposed to serve at the pleasure of the council. “If the manager is not responsive to the council’s wishes, the council has authority to terminate the manager at any time,” as the Santa Ana, California, website puts it. The Ohio Supreme Court eventually ruled the City Council had the authority to fire Feldman, but by then Clausing, Daub and Price had been recalled and replaced by pro-mall council members who supported Feldman. Another cartoon shows the four council members as puppets of Feldman and the powers-that-be after the recall of three honest councilman.

Councilmen as puppets
     In spite of being fired three times, Feldman could have stayed on for another four years, had he wanted to, because he had the support of the ruling clique and the media. He had proved how far he was willing to go and how much pressure he was willing to live under to further their interests. But perhaps in the interest of himself and his family, he chose not to remain in Portsmouth any longer than it took him to find another job. He was probably smart enough to know “the Mall” had become a fiction that nobody was going to be able to turn into a reality. Feldman was in a position to know that there was about as much chance of a big mall in downtown Portsmouth as there was of a National Football League franchise returning to play in Spartan Stadium.

Feldman’s Rapport with People

     In a sympathetic article in the Daily Times on the eve of his departure for a new job as assistant city manager in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Feldman said that the thing that pleased him most about his 4 1/2 years in Portsmouth was his “rapport with people and involvement of citizens in the community.” “Involvement of citizens” was Feldman’s euphemism for parades, protests, petitions and demonstrations that took place while he was city manager. As for his “rapport with people,” there was not much evidence of that while he was city manager. While he had strong supporters among those with money and influence, many others disliked him intensely by the time he left. But he had probably never enjoyed good rapport with ordinary folk anyway. Well-groomed and coiffed, modishly dressed, with two college degrees, the pipe- smoking Feldman raised the hackles of some of the non-elite in Portsmouth, who accused him of being the vain leader of the “Mod Squad,” whose motto might have been “Have blow dryer, will travel.”
     The second lesson to be learned from Feldman’s tenure as Portsmouth’s city manager is that he was living proof that a city manager could be as much of a devious politician as any mayor or council member. No person in the twentieth century did more to sour Portsmouth on the city manager form of government than Feldman, and anybody writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject might study his 4 1/2 years as city manager in Portsmouth as an example of just how politically compromised a city manager can become. When the voters of Portsmouth chose to return to the mayoral form of government in 1985, after 55 years of the city manager form of government, the failure of Feldman as city manager was the best argument that the pro-mayoral advocates had going for them.

Feldman’s Mayoral Complex

     Feldman did not stay long in Michigan before he moved on in 1985 to West Hartford, Connecticut, where he has been town manager ever since. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Connecticut, where he is an adjunct instructor. Nobody ever questioned Feldman’s intelligence, but he still occasionally shows that he suffers from a mayoral complex. He is still involved in politics and still not very good at it. A few years ago he invited a strong opponent of same-sex marriage to speak at a Martin Luther King commemoration. That invitation brought down a hail of criticism from a lesbian organization that claimed Dr. King would not have been opposed to same sex marriages. A spokesperson for People of Faith for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights told the Hartford Courant that the selection of a homophobe as keynote speaker was "an immense insult to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community of West Hartford and Connecticut." Feldman pleaded ignorance, telling the Hartford Courant, “It certainly would have given me lots of reason for pause. . . . This is a very difficult issue and there's lots of sympathy all around." Feldman responded to the criticism by doing the politically correct thing: he invited a lesbian activist to speak at the same celebration. So West Hartford ended up with the two political extremists at the commemoration instead of the one moderate speaker that the occasion seemed to call for. As an administrator Feldman may know what he’s doing, but as a politician he manages to put his foot in it.

Leading a Double Life

But politician is what Feldman believes city managers have to be if they are going to be effective leaders; and politician is what Feldman has been throughout his career, as the people of Portsmouth painfully learned twenty-five years ago. If he couldn’t admit at the beginning that he was a politician, he apparently can now, as he nears the end of his career.  In the “Introduction” to his 1998 Ph.D. dissertation, “Reinventing Local Government: Beyond Rhetoric to Application,” Feldman wrote, “The successful [city] managers who have tenure in their current positions know how to lead what Stillman calls a double-life: officially neutral while in fact . . . scrambling for their share of political influence in order to achieve success for themselves and their programs” (8). Feldman believes city managers should not only implement but they should also make policy, which was what he was trying to do, secretly, in those meetings from which the president of the City Council, Andrew Clausing, claimed he was excluded. Feldman apparently tried to lead a double-life as Portsmouth’s city manager and the consequences for the city and himself were traumatic. Perhaps that is why in his otherwise thorough dissertation on the evolution of the city manager form of government never Feldman once found occasion to mention that he had been city manager in Portsmouth.
     If one of the hopes Portsmouth voters had in changing to the council-manager form of government in 1930 was to keep at least one official in city government out of politics, Feldman’s tenure as city manager a half century later dealt a death-blow to that hope, for he was up to his neck in politics, according to his critics. “We were recalled [in 1980] not because we were opposed to a downtown mall," Harold Daub, one of the recalled councilmen, told me, "but because we were opposed to the actions of the City Manager [Barry Feldman].” And because Feldman is a politician, he continues in West Hartford to be a polarizing figure who rubs some people the wrong way, as he did in Portsmouth.
     In an online Connecticut forum back in 2003, an incensed woman posted the following unflattering observation about him: “West Hartford town manager Barry Feldman crawled to a public meeting the other day. All that smarmy over inflated greasy bag of ego did was allow the attendees to admire his grasp of all things meaningless and his arrogant mouthings of whatever platitudes he assumed the great unwashed needed to hear from the top of his lofty self constructed mountain of his sweet smelling excrement.” There are those who feel he left behind a similar smelly legacy in Portsmouth. According to Greek myth, a king named Augeas had failed to clean up his stables for thirty years. It was one of Hercules’ labors to clean up the mess. Anyone looking at Portsmouth’s history for the last thirty years is faced with a similar mess, to which Barry Feldman contributed more than his odoriferous share.