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Jenkins: Russell Allen was a real pro doing a good job for Raleigh

May 15, 2013 

The Alexander YMCA on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh is one place Raleigh Manger Russell Allen found a little peace from a job that likely added up to 80 hours or more a week, every week. He’d put on his gym clothes in the locker room and head to the upstairs cardio room and vigorously work out on a cross-training machine for an hour. Often, he did that seven days a week.

Allen may never get a full and satisfactory answer as to why Raleigh City Council members dismissed him in April, but his workouts at the Y are likely to ensure he outlives them all. (And most assuredly, those newspaper scribes who’ve had some fun with him from time to time.)

Allen knows most of the Y regulars by first name and they know him by his. He’s a quiet fellow but approachable and friendly. After the word of his firing got out, the buzz down on Hillsborough was the same: What in the world happened? Russell was doing a helluva job. Politicians...

One factor cited in a Sunday News & Observer story by Staff Writer Colin Campbell was a fuss over council member parking. Councillors have assigned spaces in a downtown deck. Apparently council member Randy Stagner was mad when someone parked in his space and thought Allen didn’t get on the issue soon enough.

Anyway, it seems that Stagner stayed mad about that, and that other council members have wanted to be more “hands on” with regard to city government, a phrase that strikes fear into city employees.

Raleigh’s government has long been set up as one in which the manager runs the show. Council members set overall policy, but the manager is the one who does the hiring and deals with department heads and council members.

If you work in a bureaucracy the size of the one that gets the job done in the Capital City, you like that arrangement. Imagine if you were a mid-level bureaucrat summoned to the office of this council member or that for a briefing or a policy discussion. So there you are, put squarely on the spot by a council member who may have an agenda in mind for his or her district, but you report to your department head and he or she reports to the manager.

So should council members be forbidden from communicating with staff members? No, but they need to be aware of the position they’re putting those staff members in when they do go to them directly with a question or a request.

A general complaint regarding Allen had to do with that inexact science of communication. Some council members thought he didn’t keep them well-informed. (They were happy enough to raise his compensation over the last 12 years from $140,000 to $232,000.) Others felt burned by the controversy over a proposed public safety center, over a piece of public art for Fayetteville Street, and over what seemed like endless disputes over parking.

Your correspondent even once proposed that Raleigh have free downtown parking, all the time, as a way of bolstering revitalization in the city’s core. And with cartoonist Dwane Powell, I presented to then-Mayor Charles Meeker a design for an imaginative roundabout at Five Points, very precisely drawn by Powell on a napkin from the Mecca restaurant. (And late one night at the Players Retreat, we designed a monorail to go around the entire city, but that’s another story.)

In both cases, I believe Allen saw the plans and gave them due consideration. He just said, quietly, “If we have free parking, how will we pay for the decks?” I didn’t have an answer.

The truth is, Raleigh City Council members are reasonable folks. Russell Allen is a sound manager. His predecessor, Dempsey Benton, ruled for 18 years or so and was rarely questioned about his decisions by councillors, and that pattern has pretty much held with Allen. The system, over all, has worked well for the city. Before council members seek to have a more hands-on approach, they need to think about that.

More than likely this parting of company has come not so much because of mistakes or disputes or even personality conflicts, but because those on both sides just got weary. It’s not easy to be a city council member, with constituents coming at you over everything from potholes to noisy neighbors to zoning. It’s not easy being a manager with elected council members and members of the public seeking quick action on that pothole or an immediate decision on a brilliant monorail plan.

What we do know is that we had a very fine manager for 12 years, and another city is now going to get a very fine one.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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