What Does Harry Black’s History Tell Us About His Capability of Managing City Hall?

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) announced Harry Black as his pick to fill the role of the city’s equivalent of a chief executive officer.

It has been widely reported that Black is the current finance director for the City of Baltimore, and that he had a tumultuous tenure while serving as the chief financial officer for the City of Richmond, VA. When selected for the Baltimore job, The Brew had the following to say regarding Black:

Baltimore’s new director…was introduced to the City Council as a green-eyeshades number cruncher well-versed in municipal bond transactions.

That dull description hardly fits with Black’s varied career and his sometimes volatile personality that included an attempt to evict the Richmond school board from its offices and frequent brawls with the Richmond City Council.

It has also been widely reported in the Baltimore and Richmond media that Black earned the nickname of being “the mayor’s bull dog” and “Baby Wilder” in reference to former Richmond mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

What makes this interesting is the explanation for all the turmoil in Richmond, by both Black himself and Mayor Cranley. They say it was due to tensions over the transition of the city from a city manager form of government, to a “strong mayor” system.

It should be seen as no coincidence that Black has been selected for the Cincinnati role after he had ramrodded through a new form of government in Richmond that is also being proposed in Cincinnati by a Cranley loyalist – Christopher Smitherman (R). If Black’s history, and Cranley’s style of governance, is any indication, one can assume Cincinnati’s transition from a city manager government to a strong mayor system may be just as tumultuous.

What adds further intrigue to the selection are Black’s other noteworthy leadership moments.

In 2007, then Richmond Mayor Douglas Wilder (D) asked for an outside audit of the city school board’s finances. When rebuffed by the school board, Wilder then forced the move and had Black conduct the operation. In order to do so, Black, as the city’s chief financial officer, withheld half of the board’s non-payroll funds and tried to evict them from their offices.

Such behavior and loyalty would come in handy for Mayor Cranley if he does in fact try to dismantle the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), and shift its control into City Hall – something he has been calling for since his time on city council in the early 2000s.

Later on in his tenure at the City of Richmond, he was nominated to become to the city’s chief administrative officer, but was rejected by the city council, according to The Brew.

Then, in 2008, Black’s office was slammed by a KPMG audit that highlighted a slew of auditing inconsistencies and faults including outdated and unreconciled city financial accounts, improperly recorded account deposits, and more than $5 million in money that was not recorded at all in the city’s cash account as it should have been.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, “The memo said millions of dollars from different sources of city money either were not recorded or were accounted for in the wrong period. It also criticized city officials for poor record-keeping of financial transactions, noting that they couldn’t document spending on capital projects or the details of complex economic-development deals.”

At the time, Black attributed the failures of his office to the limited resources he received from the city council, and institutional problems that restricted his ability to hire and fire staff as he pleased.

Black says that he has since learned from his troubled career in Richmond, and that his subsequent experience in the private sector has bolstered his credentials. Unfortunately, there are also disputes regarding his past performance and experience.

In 2012, it was reported that Black’s resume appeared to be a bit overzealous in describing his private sector experience following his time in Richmond.

Harry E. Black claims to have supervised a $500-million construction program at an architectural consulting firm where, according to a federal administrative judge’s finding in 2006, he “was not a key employee” and “had no management authority.”

[…]

Looking at a joint venture by McKissack & McKissack and Global Commerce Solutions Inc. – a company founded by Black’s wife, Sheryl Black – Small Business Administration Judge Thomas B. Pender ruled on May 24, 2006 that “the preponderance of the evidence” showed that Harry Black had “no management authority when he worked for McKissack & McKissack” despite his title.

“Mr. Black is not a key employee of M&M [McKissack & McKissack] and has no ability or power to control M&M. He was originally hired by M&M as an independent consultant and his role as vice president was in name only,” the opinion, obtained by The Brew, said.

But it is what was uncovered by The Brew last October that raises potentially the biggest concern. At that time, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) was moving forward with awarding a $185 million contract to Dynis LLC to replace 400,000 water meters throughout the city and county.

The problem was that Dynis had no experience in doing such work, and that an actually qualified contractor submitted a bid that was $100 million less, but not accepted. Perhaps predictably so, it was uncovered that Dynis had connections to one of the mayor’s top campaign donors, and would make a considerable profit off of the contract.

While the story was uncovered by Mark Reutter, who Mayor Cranley dismissed yesterday as a “silly blogger”, it eventually became front-page news and earned The Brew national acclaim for the work of its “bloggers” who previously had careers as investigative journalists for various newspapers.

While the story centered on Rawlings-Blake and the unethical process of awarding contracts by Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, Black’s position as the director of finance is tasked with working with the Board of Estimates on recommending and issuing contracts.

Outside of the water meter contract scandal, Black’s two-and-a-half-year tenure in Baltimore has been defined by his reduction of the city’s structural deficit and delivery of a 10-year fiscal plan. At the same time, however, he will be leaving the office amid ongoing criticisms about his department’s inability to issue accurate tax bills and maintain proper books for auditing.

Mayor Cranley appears to have used the national search for a new city manager to hand-pick a candidate that will be used to advance his own political agenda.

Black’s past shows a troubled public tenure, questionable private sector career, and paints a picture of a man who greatly desires power and authority, and dislikes those who get in his way.

While his accomplishments in improving minority contracts and reducing structural deficits in Richmond and Baltimore are laudable, his strong-headed and ruthless approach to governance should give Cincinnatians pause.

  • Jon White

    This is why I love UrbanCincy. Great stuff Randy!

  • matimal

    Yes, Great work Randy. cranely and slitherman are the personification of everything bad and wrong in Cincinnati. It will take real effort, but working to thwart their old-school machine politics and more subtle and modern version of playing the race card is a positive contribution to Cincinnati. It’s energy we won’t have for actually improving Cincinnati, but it must be done. They actually do us a service by being the representatives of power-hungry resentment in Cincinnati politics. When we defeat them, we know what we’ve defeated.

    • tastyphlegm

      Seriously? “Slitherman?” “playing the race card”? Guess the same thing could have been said about the previous administration where you hired a black city manager, a black fire chief, a black police chief…. Give me a break. Your obvious hatred for Cranley is pathetic. Instead of working for a better Cincinnati, you choose to bash one person because your Foxy Roxy wasn’t elected. Get over it and move on with your pathetic life.

    • matimal

      You don’t understand what ‘playing the race card means’ if you can’t tell the difference.

    • EDG

      Smitherman is a political psychopath, I’ve ridden the bus with him a few times and each time he gave an impromptu political speech/rant from the rear platform of the bus. There are more sane homeless people.

    • Jake Mecklenborg

      I love those photos of Smitherman on his west side junkets. He does a costume change, dressing in white dad jeans and something just short of an Elder or LaSalle polo shirt. He’s tricking white west side catholics by the hundreds.

    • James Bonsall

      I think that’s where we are losing people. Smitherman engages people everywhere, where they are at. I honestly love that he is having political discussions with people on the bus. We need more of that. We need people more invested in their future.

    • Mark Christol

      He certainly made good use of Media Bridges – before throwing them under the bus…

    • matimal

      Whose “we” and what are we losing by attempting to stop a deeply troubled, and hopelessly ineffectual, elected official? This is in the interest of all Cincinnatians.

    • James Bonsall

      Your attempts to “stop him” only make you look like an ass.

    • matimal

      So be it. That’s a small price to pay to shine some light on a local menace. We need to work to make room for progressives by marginalizing those uninterested in Cincinnati’s economic growth.

    • Neil Clingerman

      There is a huge difference between looking like an ass and showing general concern towards shady and manipulative people. The later is the case here.

      Also I’m putting this here to remind people about Cranley’s past and how dangerous he is to Cincinnati (yes its long, but please watch at least part 2 and your opinion of the man may change showing just how petty and small and an ineffective leader he really is): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4Zz9zVvcqg&list=PLIlmcDu2xE0UWp1MhyB7_fO6gE18MrN66

    • Mark Christol

      “Slitherman” is racist?
      “Foxy Roxy” is cetainly sexist.

    • Mark Christol

      and I’m pretty sure the Fire Chief is caucasian…

    • Neil Clingerman

      foxy roxy ploxy boxy noxy. Can we have debates that don’t devolve into mematic tropes? Ditto on Slitherman.

    • James Bonsall

      I think it’s time to drop the “slitherman” comment. Also, you should captalize their names. Your name calling is helping nobody, turns people off for your causes, and, frankly, makes you look bitter. Let’s be positive in our messanging.

    • matimal

      slitherman is indefensible as a private citizen, much less as an elected official. I am reminding those you might not know about him that he and his hired body guards (yes, body guards!) threatened bodily harm against me and others after a streetcar hearing in City Hall. He poked his finger in my chest and said, “we’ll get you.” He has nothing to contribute to Cincinnati. Defending him is a VERY bad position to take, in my view. Let’s focus on Seelbach, Simpson, and others who have a vision for Cincinnati.

    • James Bonsall

      I’m not defending him, but again, I pretty much tune out your posts as you lose credibility immediately by your derogatory attitude.

    • matimal

      I’m hardly the only person who thinks slitherman is horrible.
      please let us know who and what you DO support. That’s the point of this forum after all.

    • Guest

      Many of us in the progressive community have repeatedly asked matimal to tone down his derogatory posts. His posts are counterproductive to the “cause” he claims to support, but he’s shown no interest in the effects his negativity has. Many of us have challenged him to show up to political and community-oriented events to no avail. Tuning out his thousands of posts is indeed recommended.

    • matimal

      Who? When? I have no idea who you are or if I’ve ever had any interaction with you. You speak for yourself, not anyone else. This isn’t personal for me. I want Cincinnati to succeed. That’s it for me. If you disagree with me, make your argument, instead of suggesting that my views are somehow illegitimate.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Cranley has enough cobwebs that should be laid out in the open that nastiness is warranted. However, I’ll agree with you that mematic tropes are wrong, let the actions speak for themselves.

  • Good article. I’ll reserve judgment on the man, but Council has an interesting task ahead of it.

    Frankly, I don’t think it matters. This choice is a red herring… a no-lose proposition for Mayor Cranley. The real goal is the strong mayor or “boss” form of government. If Harry Black is chosen as City Manager, this assists towards the goal. If he is not, Mayor Cranley will give a speech about City Council “ignoring the will of the voters” and use it as a jumping-off point for Smitherman’s strong mayor campaign.

    The question is, what is the progressives’ plan? Those who supported Roxanne Qualls for mayor are right to feel upset. But 9 months later, isn’t it time progressives take Roxanne’s advice and work within the system to positively affect change? Shouldn’t they take Don Mooney’s advice and “get over it (the 2013 election), then get ready”? Instead of just continuing to hold a spiteful grudge about having lost?

    There’s an election in 3 months, and most (or at least many) progressives in this city seem more worried about the last election. Move on.

    I personally have no problem with a Mayor Cranley, even though I didn’t vote for him… it’s the issues and the results I care about. For me, the results so far are troublesome. THAT is the issue, and NEEDS to be the issue. But right now, progressives are reactionary, not proactive. The “plan,” at least at the face, seems to be see what happens and complain about it. Especially on social media. (Haven’t we had enough of the same 3 or 4 commenters who just call people names and disappear?)

    And if there is no plan, the strong mayor system will be approved by voters in 2015. Progressives will complain, but it won’t do any good.

    Council will make their choice on Harry Black. It’s time to prepare for what happens after.

    • Right. Council will make the final decision on this. That’s why we wanted to publish this information before those discussions were held; and also give local mainstream media outlets a chance to frame their questions in a more targeted way prior to the media Q/A session held earlier this morning.

    • Totally fair and I’m more than glad you posted it. I’m glad you did the research to help educate all of us on someone who could become a very important figure in our city if appointed.

      I’m generally a little frustrated with the lack of discipline, foresight, and organization a lot of the “progressives” in this city seem to have (with some notable exceptions), and this seemed a good opportunity to vent. I’m glad you pointed to the “strong mayor” proposal, because if everyone just complains for 3 days then forgets about it (as seems typical), they’ll be regretting it come spring.

    • EDG

      I don’t think the strong mayor system has any chance of passing. Looking at how voter momentum typically swings, the base that’s pissed off right now are progressives. Do Cranley supporters care enough about also making him strong mayor to outnumber everyone’s he’s pissed off since the campaign?

    • IMO, this is the kind of thinking that led to the 2013 election results. Yes, progressives are angry, but a) they still don’t have the numbers or the money machine to fight a cause like strong mayor, and b) if they assume the vote is already pre-determined they won’t vote. (I volunteered for Roxanne Qualls’ campaign, and can say that many didn’t bother to vote for her because they assumed she’d win.)

      That, and underestimating a Cranley-Smitherman money and spin machine is verrrry dangerous. If this goes to ballot in 2015, not only does it have a strong chance of passing, but it WILL pass if opponents don’t have a plan in advance.

    • And there lies the root of the problem, the progressives and urbanists can mobilize quickly on social media but have no real machine to work city hall with. We’re all slashing around in the deep end of the pool with no real idea how to swim.

    • matimal

      We’ve got Seelbach and Simpson. With experience both can become better at building progressive coalitions on individual issues and isolating slitherman and cranely.

    • The Believe machine is impressive, but engagement on any issue other than the streetcar is tough.

      Conservative groups can ask for money and votes and get them all day long. It doesn’t matter the cause – if someone says “we need money” they get it. Why is engagement so difficult for progressives? (And I ask the question because I frankly do not know the answer.)

    • matimal

      “Believe machine “?

  • tastyphlegm

    “Mayor Cranley appears to have used the national search for a new city manager to hand-pick a candidate that will be used to advance his own political agenda.”

    Randy, find me one Mayor or political figure who DOESN’T look to find a candidate to advance their own political agenda. Is this an investigative reporting piece or a blog on your continuing hatred for Cranley? I’m guessing the latter.

    The candidate needs to gain approval of City Council. The last time I read the Charter, the Mayor couldn’t simply hire a City Manager.

    • If you have been reading UrbanCincy long enough, you would know that we were also critical of the hire of Milton Dohoney by Mark Mallory. Dohoney ended up proving me wrong over his tenure, but he had no major controversies surrounding him like Black does.

      I don’t actually hate Cranley, but I do think he is overly aggressive and spiteful – neither of which are qualities I like in a leader.

      As you may know, Cincinnati’s form of government makes the city manager the equivalent of the city’s CEO. The city manager is to make non-political recommendations based on their experience and knowledge of the city’s finances and operations. Black has a long and documented career of being a rubber-stamp kind of guy for the mayors he works with. This is not what a city manager in Cincinnati’s form of government is suppose to be.

      Of course, we all know that Cranley wants to change the city’s form of government to a strong mayor system, and this appears to be a step in that direction, but avoids any typical public discussion. With the people he’s placed around him, he has essentially created a strong mayor setup already. Contrary to what is suppose to happen, it was very clear that this year’s budget was drafted by him, not Scott Stiles. Cranley wants a city manager who will do what he tells them to do, not instruct him on what should be done according to their professional expertise.

    • Furthermore, I would say it’s natural and expected for a mayor to pick someone who aligns with their policy positions. But it’s another situation entirely to pick someone who will rewrite the rules about how much power and authority your office will hold.

  • matimal

    Look at the photo! What an expression of contempt!

  • Tom Gregory

    A “silly blogger”? Cranley should be relieved that Mark Reutter is 500 miles east in Baltimore and not digging around in Cincy’s political garbage.

    • Absolutely. Reutter and his team do amazing work at The Brew. While UrbanCincy doesn’t focus on politics as much as they do, I certainly hope we can get to that level one day. For what it’s worth, both Cranley and Black continue to dismissively refer to Reutter as a “blogger”.

  • And apparently the only chance the public will have to weigh in on the decision is tomorrow, the 5th, at 10am. SAD!

  • saintezbaby

    If you want to change the way the City has been operating for the past 15 years, it is time to repeal issue 5 (Charter amendment adopted in 2001 after the riots). The strong mayor form of government cannot work as proposed with the current dysfunctional structure of City Council. A better form of local government would be to establish a City Council where the majority of the members (say 6 of the 9) are elected and represent established wards with the remaining 3 members elected at large. Eliminating the Manager’s position completely removes any professionalism (albeit that professionalism has been increasingly negligible over the last 10 years or so) from City government and opens the door wide to opportunity for cronyism, favoritism, and more pronounced unethical activities. The current structure of City Council enables and empowers individuals like Mr. Smitherman to constantly grandstand because his objective, as is anyone who is serving on Council, is the next public office he will run for.