Sunday, December 05, 2010
Change of Style at City Hall
By Dan McKay
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Big press conferences are scarce.
His face isn't on the video that greets visitors at the airport.
And when he does seek out the cameras, it's often to congratulate a city employee who has saved a life or City Hall some dough.
Richard Berry is shaping up to be a different kind of mayor, and the lack of attention-seeking isn't the only change.
A year after taking office, Berry leads a city government that pays employees about 2.2 percent less than it used to, and fewer people are on the payroll to boot — moves that angered union leaders.
The city also charges more for garbage pickup. It displays the mug shots of property-crime offenders in newspaper ads. And the red-light cameras are still snappin', but on a reduced scale.
This is the City Hall of Berry's first year as mayor.
"People will decide whether they think we're doing a good job," Berry said recently, acknowledging his low-key style. "No amount of spin on our part is going to change that perception."
In some ways, Berry's first 12 months are defined by what he hasn't done. There have been no tax increases or significant layoffs, he's quick to point out. And just last month, he announced he isn't ready to throw his support behind plans to build a new Downtown event center and hotel project, a favorite of some city councilors.
Berry's reviews are mixed, as is usually the case in politics.
He draws high marks from former Mayor Jim Baca, a Democrat not normally inclined to agree with a conservative Republican like Berry. Berry is "doing great," Baca said.
On the other hand, Baca added, Berry's reluctance to seek publicity could lead to re-election trouble.
"You don't see too much of him on TV," Baca said. "Sometimes, I think Darren White's the mayor."
White, who has never been shy around a camera, is Berry's director of public safety and a former Bernalillo County sheriff.
In any case, Baca credits Berry for cutting the budget and reducing employee pay, even over the objection of the police, fire and other unions.
"I think he stood up to them well," Baca said. "He'll certainly feel the consequences in 2 1/2 years when he runs again, but he's doing the right thing for the people."
Don Harris, chairman of the City Council budget committee, said Berry has visited councilors in their ninth floor offices, something that never happened under Martin Chávez, who preceded Berry as mayor.
"It helps," Harris said, "because (Berry) tries, I think sincerely, to make disagreements about policy, not about winning and losing and getting his way and punishing and rewarding individuals. He's worked very hard to set that tone."
But Greg Payne, a former city councilor and the transit director in the Chávez administration, says Berry should have sought more dramatic changes in city government. Payne now works as a political and communications consultant.
"My concern is that there doesn't seem to be a real drive to revamp and reform City Hall," Payne said. "... I don't think we'll look back on the past year of this administration and talk about the Berry revolution."
Berry, he said, hasn't been quick enough to respond to employees accused of misconduct, citing the case of a garbage truck driver accused of attempted rape.
The administration says it's moved as quickly as it can without violating the law. The garbage truck driver was placed on paid administrative leave as soon as he showed up for work, and the city has launched disciplinary proceedings that could result in his termination.
The Rev. Trey Hammond, a pastor at La Mesa Presbyterian Church and co-chairman of the nonprofit Albuquerque Interfaith, which often weighs in on city issues, said the new mayor deserves credit for "making the city government much more transparent and accountable."
But members of Albuquerque Interfaith, he said, were disappointed that the mayor opted for wage cuts instead of "revenue enhancements." The group was pleased, however, that the cuts were graduated to lessen the blow on low earners.
Hammond said his group will watch carefully to ensure that local police aren't used to enforce federal immigration laws, which could discourage immigrants from calling police.
The concern comes after Berry announced that federal agents will be stationed in a prisoner transport center, where they will check the immigration status of everyone arrested in Albuquerque, regardless of national origin. Berry hasn't changed procedures for people who aren't arrested.
Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, described Berry as intense, focused and pragmatic. The business community has been impressed with his approach to property crime and other issues, she said.
"He does a great job of tackling problems without getting distracted by ideological debates or partisan squabbles," she said.
Chávez didn't return calls for comment this week.
Berry's decision to cut wages led to a tense relationship with union leaders this year, exacerbated in part because the prior administration had scheduled pay raises for police and firefighters.
In June, fire union President Diego Arencón said Berry's pay cut plan was "an insult to the men and women of the Albuquerque Fire Department."
Another union leader this summer said the unions were "at war" with the administration over the wage cuts.
"The mayor's actions have resulted in losing many experienced firefighters, morale is suffering and financial cuts are putting citizens at risk," Arencón said Saturday.
The administration, in turn, disputes that public safety is any worse off and says it can hire new firefighters to replace any who retire.
Still plenty to do
Berry, for his part, said there's plenty still to tackle at City Hall. His term, of course, is already 25 percent of the way over.
Employees are undergoing cross-training because internal city operations have suffered from tight budgets in recent years, he said. There was only one accountant "who could do payroll" when Berry took office, he said.
A new financial software system has delayed a city audit that was due the day Berry took office last year. Berry's transition team said the trouble could damage Albuquerque's bond rating.
Asked to name a failure from his tenure so far, Berry mentioned an incident at the zoo. The body of a giraffe that had died was found in a zoo trash bin, rather than having been buried at the landfill, as usual for animals that size. A miscommunication among city staff was blamed for the problem, and the administration said it expected to mete out discipline.
City officials are also hearing from angry family members and neighbors because of the increase in police shootings this year. Fourteen people have been shot by police — nine killed — and the administration said it's studying the issue and having an outside review done.
"We're taking it very seriously," Berry said.
The mayor said he is "data driven" and endeavors to be "the most prepared person in the room." The mistakes his team makes, he said, will be "honest ones."
Berry acknowledged that the transparency website his administration launched, for example, could be used to spot questionable spending or other problems. But he said it's worth it to allow more public scrutiny of City Hall.
The transparency website, called ABQ View, includes the city's budget documents, its checkbooklike ledger, travel expenses and salaries for political appointees, among other things.
Berry, who served in the state House until last year, said he's surprised at how many people recognize him as Albuquerque's mayor, even well outside city limits. One man, for instance, approached him during a meal at Wendy's in Española.
But, Berry said, City Hall "is not about me." Rank-and-file employees, he said, deserve credit for doing more with less over the last year. His executive team, he added, has an excellent work ethic. And the City Council has played an important role this year, too, he said.
Berry is quick to dispute any notion that doing his job quietly means he's not reaching out to the community. Berry just doesn't feel the need to ask reporters to cover every speaking engagement or public event, spokesman Chris Ramirez said.
Berry, for example, delivered donations to the Roadrunner Food Bank last week, without calling attention to it.
The public seems to like his low-key, deliberate style so far. A survey by Research & Polling Inc., completed for the Journal this summer, showed about 63 percent of likely voters in Bernalillo County said they generally approved of Berry's performance.
"This is a resilient place," Berry said. "We have a very bright future. It's not because I'm the mayor. It's because this is a great city."
Family: Wife, Maria; son Jacob, 14.
Childhood: Born in Iowa, raised in Nebraska. Was an Eagle Scout.
Education: Bachelor's degree in finance and administration, UNM, 1985. Lettered in track and field.
Before City Hall: Worked as a project manager and chief operating officer for his wife's company, Cumbre Construction Inc., a general contractor. Won election to the state House of Representatives in 2006.
• Reduced employee pay and eliminated vacant positions in his first annual budget.
• Targeted property crime with the start of a night detective squad, publication of mug shots of the "most wanted" property crime offenders and other efforts.
• Launched a policy calling for federal agents to check the immigration status of everyone arrested in Albuquerque, regardless of national origin.
• Created a tip line for employees or others to report fraud, corruption or inefficiency.
• Rolled out a new transparency website that features the city's checkbook, pay for political employees and other data.
• Hired the University of New Mexico to study red-light cameras, then negotiated a contract extension that keeps the cameras running, but at fewer intersections and without speed citations.
• Announced he isn't ready to embark on a Downtown event center and hotel project.
• Invited businesses willing to pay extra to apply for permits through an expedited planning process.
A year's difference, by the numbers
6,529: Number of employees on the payroll in October, 3 percent fewer than a year ago.
1,048,739: Passenger boardings on city buses in October, 6 percent more than a year ago.
$2.16: Amount of monthly increase for residential trash bills, compared with last year.
$455,534,000: Spending authorized in the operating budget this year, about 4 percent less than was authorized a year ago and 1 percent less than was spent.