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A troubling transition at City Hall?

Johnson shares his concerns about Duffy's changes


By the time this article hits the streets, the 12-year administration of Mayor Bill Johnson will have less than 20 days left

Robert Duffy|WilliamJohnson|Rochester mayor

Although Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson was a strong supporter of Bob Duffy, so far he's not happy with the changes his successor is making in City Hall.

In a recent interview with City Newspaper, Johnson said that he's trying to "kind of hold my tongue," but he had strong words about some of the Duffy transition team's actions.

Among his concerns: that Duffy is removing too many senior administrators too quickly, that some of his supporters may be looking for patronage jobs, and that the business community seems to have a strong hold on the mayor-elect.

There are indications, Johnson said, that Duffy is "making some decisions that would really come back to haunt him."

Throughout the campaign, Duffy was fond of saying that January 1 --- his first day in office --- would be "a work day." With the goal of having a management team in place by then, he has already begun notifying some administrators that they won't be coming back. Johnson himself was the last person to undertake the task of creating a new administration, over a decade ago, and said he understands the difficulties involved. "I cannot even begin to describe the magnitude of what they have to deal with," he says.

One risk Johnson singled out was the possibility that making certain replacements --- or too many --- could have the effect of gutting City Hall of institutional memory. As an example, he pointed to Community Development Commissioner Linda Stango, who has been told she won't be retained.

With the past two years, said Johnson, former Community Development Tom Argust and Linda Luxenberg, director of all the housing programs, both retired. Deputy Commissioner and Planning Director Larry Stid recently died.

"Now here we are, in a community where we're trying to rebuild our tax base," said Johnson. "And we have put a lot of investment into not only our affordable-housing program, which has been very transformative, but now we are into market-rate housing. And we also are overwhelmed with these abandoned properties that just end up on our tax rolls through foreclosure."

"You've got all this going on in this department," said Johnson. "All these people are gone. Why do you then go in and wipe out the last senior person in the department?"

Instead, Johnson said, Duffy should've kept on some of the senior employees, at least until they had time to groom a competent successor.

"My point is," said Johnson, "even if he's got these political benefactors who are saying, 'Oh, I had a bad experience with [Environmental Services Commissioner] Ed Doherty' or 'I had a bad experience with Lin Stango, I had a bad experience with [Economic Development Commissioner] Fashun Ku,' he needs to say: 'Wait a minute. There's too much going on right now for us to have such an abrupt change.'"

There are indications, Johnson said, that some of the changes may be politically driven.

"The night of the primary, I heard their chants: 'Clean sweep,' 'Get out the broom.' 'Clean sweep' doesn't do anything for a man who's got to come in and try to keep this government going. He needs institutional memory, he needs experience, and he needs to really keep faith with the bureaucracy," said Johnson.

While the mayor can appoint senior officials, most of the people who keep the city running --- the people who handle zoning applications, pick up the trash, plow the snow, run the recreation centers, and conduct the inspections --- are protected by Civil Service. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who work for the city, the mayor can't touch," said Johnson. And a mayor has to win their trust.

"I can tell you, it took me a good time to gain the confidence of that bureaucracy," said Johnson.

The new mayor will also have to win the trust of City Council, and some Councilmembers are already unhappy about some of the Duffy staff changes.

"It's extremely important to have someone who can work in a very productive way with the Council's staff, in order that we have our program go forward," said Johnson. "And remember, every member of that City Council, the outgoing one, none of them supported Duffy. So he's got to reach out to them, because he's going to need them if he wants to change the structure of government."

"Just go back and look at history," said Johnson. "First impressions last." He cited former County Executive Tom Frey, a Democrat who raised his own salary almost immediately after his election. From that moment, Republicans hammered away at him, and Frey was defeated after only one term.

"Tom Frey was a good, competent county executive," said Johnson. "He could never overcome that one move he made to increase his salary. And that was unfortunate. So Duffy's got to understand that in terms of his impression with his legislative body."

Johnson said he's also concerned about the possibility that some of Duffy's supporters expect to get jobs in the new administration. "There's no room in that system," he said, "to be saying we're going to create jobs to reward the nearly breathing or the incompetent."

"I know that as Duffy is now approaching this task, he's beginning to understand the awesome difficulty of taking care of some of the people who were so helpful to him in the campaign," said Johnson. "That model is way gone."

Johnson also cited Duffy's growing ties with local business leaders. Eight of the leaders of his transition committees have ties to the business community. And both of his transition-related press conferences have been at the offices of the Rochester Business Alliance.

"It is a fair observation that when people see the composition of his transition teams, just the visual messages that are sent --- all of a sudden we've gone back to the day where two or three business leaders are going to call the tunes," said Johnson. "That is not good for this city."

"I'm not Bob Duffy's adversary," said Johnson. "I have tremendous respect for Bob, and I think that if it is the judgment of some that he made some missteps, it's probably better he did them now, before he became mayor, because he has, I think, an opportunity to recoup."

"What we cannot figure out," said Johnson, "is the strong pull that people in the business community have on him. I mean, he raised an inordinate amount of money. I think he's got enough integrity that that's not going to be an issue, but I think Bob is an extremely loyal guy. And I think he would, as one would expect, feel a need to be supportive of people who supported him.

"We don't know what their motivations were for supporting him, and I think that it's unfortunate that we're left to speculate. But we're speculating based on the available evidence. The way this transition is taking place leaves us with no other conclusion: that so far, there are other people calling the shots. And they've become rather secretive about it."

Next week: The legacy of Bill Johnson.