It’s a balancing act.

Every day for those of us involved with the City of Harrisburg whether a citizen, an elected or appointed official, a business owner, a non-resident, or the Receiver, it’s a challenge of weighing the good and the bad, the pros and the cons.

We’re all struggling with it. It’s the plight of Harrisburg right now. Hopefulness lives here with frustration in Pennsylvania’s capital city along the river.

Really, though, the greatest strive for steadiness lies within our expectations. What do we expect for the City of Harrisburg? What do we expect from the City of Harrisburg?

Much of those expectations are imposed upon the City’s elected leaders. Citizens expect them to handle Harrisburg’s business. Outside elected leaders expect them to behave professionally. Businesses expect them to provide a climate for success. Non-residents expect them to establish a dependable place to work or visit. The Receiver expects dedication, reliability, and adherence from them.

Somewhere in between the extremes of those expectations, in the middle of neglect and idealism, is the means to the best course of action for the City. It’s there, like a virtue. But in order to find it, each of us has to locate the temperance of our expectations. The place where pragmatism and humility lies.

This is tricky one, especially for the City’s prime leader—the mayor, Linda Thompson. She seemingly has trouble with reposing in virtue, in finding that sweet spot of appropriate behavior at the right time. Perhaps it’s a restlessness in her driven by a frantic need to feel valuable. Or maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur. Whatever the reason is, it’s plain she does not serve the masses and all of their expectations well.

It’s a flaw in our democracy, electing inadequate leaders. In the case of the City of Harrisburg, this was done by a slight margin. Thompson assailed the electorate with promises, assurances, and bombast. Her tactics succeeded, though, and now here we are. In Receivership.

In his Recovery Plan, which he filed with Commonwealth Court last week, Receiver David Unkovic showed subtle signs that he understands the City’s plight of a lack of adequate leadership. The indications are there despite the Mayor denying them as was clear in her superficial response to the plan. However, reading through the plan’s introduction, Unkovic displays an awareness that Harrisburg is without strong leadership be it from the Mayor’s Office or even from City Council Chambers for that matter. At the same time, he’s represented that he will honor the system of elected officials. For now. He’s going to let us have our governmental processes and procedures.

One of those processes and procedures is the hiring of a Chief Operations Officer (COO) for the City. This is a critical part of the Receiver’s plan for Harrisburg’s longterm recovery. Yet, as Unkovic articulated last week at the City Council Budget & Finance Committee meeting, he will permit the Mayor to interview and recommend the COO for hire, and if the candidate passes Unkovic muster, then the entrant will head to City Council for appointment.

The COO is an integral position and one which is much more than the Chief of Staff/Business Administrator Harrisburg has been without since the last one walked out a year and a half ago with no other found in the meanwhile. This is the one. It’s the one who could accomplish the mean in the middle, the point of virtue. It’s the one who could right many of the expectations pointed at the City. Unkovic refers to the COO as the person who will “take the lead role with recovery plan implementation.” This person will not only answer to the Mayor but also to the Receiver himself. Managing day to day operations, the person hired as COO will most likely out term both the current Mayor and the Receiver.

That is, if the COO hired can be retained within the Thompson Administration. As stated above the last one Harrisburg had walked out in July of 2010, three months after his predecessor resigned, which was only months into Mayor Thompson’s first term. It’s no secret that the Mayor has trouble keeping her management staff.

It’s a flaw in our democracy

One manager in particular, though, has weathered the stay, and that’s Director of Public Works Ernie Hoch. Regularly hailed by City citizens, businesses, and leaders as a shining diamond in the rough of Harrisburg’s government, he is someone who has demonstrated keen skill in superintendence. He regularly exemplifies a perseverance to public service under extraordinary conditions from calamities to complaints. Plus, he evidently can handle the Mayor. Hiring him was one of the best things Linda Thompson ever did for the City of Harrisburg.

Ernie Hoch has applied for the COO position. After one and a half years of residing here, come from afar, he wants to stay to take on more. More responsibility, more challenges, and more grief, which will no doubt be a part of the duties.

There’s a catch, though. The Mayor doesn’t seem to want him. This could be conjecture, but as City Hall is no longer on lockdown (remember when there was Mayoral order of that?), reports are coming out that Hoch has applied but hasn’t been interviewed, that he won’t be interviewed. Apparently, the Mayor sees him as a risk to her reign. Is it possible that she won’t consider his application because he’s too good, too competent, too able?

Whispers out of City Hall is that Hoch is the one for the job. He has the resumé, the respect of the department heads and the workers, and the trust of the people. He has proven himself. Anyone else as COO would have to become acquainted with the ways of the City which includes the ways of the Mayor. That’s a learning curve that Harrisburg cannot necessarily afford, many will agree. Time cannot be wasted with quittings and backlash. There’s been enough of that.

If City Council is aware of Hoch’s application and situation, they have not stated so in the public forum as would be expected they should do about this significant issue. In regard to the position of COO, Councilmembers have been publicly vocal about one thing and one thing only—that the City does not need both a COO and a Director of Communications. In fact, they were quite vocal about this last week and gave the Receiver an earful about it. While they agree with the import of a COO, they do not agree with keeping the spokesman. In return, Unkovic stated the Director of Communications was necessary because the City must have a steady voice at this tumultuous junction, basically implying the Mayor looks bad without someone to write her messages for her. When the Mayor looks bad, too often the City of Harrisburg looks bad as has been the history.

Harrisburg will also look bad if the Mayor chews and spits out another crucial employee that we need much more than she needs, and by we, that is all the people and their expectations.

Striking the balance. In one dish of the scale, a city demised–assets gone, taxes high, crime out of control, services cut, morale diminished. If the people of the taken-over City of Harrisburg are to be taxed more and stripped of assets, then we must be given tools to offset it. Truly, the only hope Harrisburg has of any comeback the Receiver envisions is by assembling a domain of competency, proficiency, and regeneration, which people from the outside and in want to be a part of. That won’t happen if the balance isn’t struck. No point in extravagant pantomimes of governmental process and procedure when it threatens virtue. Let’s expect the Receiver realizes this as he calibrate’s recovery for the City.

See the Receiver’s Plan here.

Drawing by Ammon Perry: Doodletillomega: Illustrations and Drawings by Ammon Perry

 

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

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Tara Leo Auchey