Foon Rhee

How should Shirey be judged as Sacramento city manager?

Sacramento City Manager John Shirey describes the new arena financing plan to the City Council in 2013. The Golden 1 Center is one of Shirey’s biggest accomplishments as he retires Nov. 18.
Sacramento City Manager John Shirey describes the new arena financing plan to the City Council in 2013. The Golden 1 Center is one of Shirey’s biggest accomplishments as he retires Nov. 18. Sacramento Bee file

John Shirey, who ends more than five years as Sacramento’s city manager this week, can claim quite a few accomplishments and has laid the foundation for many more ahead.

But his tenure is ending – and being tarnished – by the firestorm over the fatal police shooting of Joseph Mann.

Shirey didn’t decide what two officers did that July afternoon, when they tried to run Mann over with their patrol car before shooting him 14 times. Shirey didn’t have direct control when the Police Department stonewalled on releasing video of the incident and on fully explaining its policies on using deadly force.

So it may not be fair that one incident threatens to overshadow Shirey’s many successes, though such risks come with the job.

But it is supremely ironic because history is repeating itself: He left his last city manager post – eight years in Cincinnati – after controversial police shootings of black men as well.

“It has crossed my mind,” Shirey told me. “It just seems I have bad luck.”

Actually, Cincinnati was even worse because it suffered a string of police shootings of black men – 15 of them in six years. The last, in April 2001, sparked the largest riots in the U.S. since the ones in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict. Less than a month after the riots, Shirey resigned before getting fired.

I asked him: Did he learn any lessons in Cincinnati that he tried to use here?

“The lesson is that you cannot deal with incidents when they occur,” he replied. “You need to build trust between the Police Department and the community so when bad incidents do happen, people trust the information that’s given out.”

That wasn’t the case in Cincinnati, he said, but the situation was far better in Sacramento, where Mayor Kevin Johnson and police officials reached out to community leaders after the violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., nearly two years ago. That helps explain why there hasn’t been similar unrest here.

Shirey says while you always look back in hindsight to see what you could have done better, he doesn’t apologize for how the public was kept informed of the Mann case.

What he does regret is that the city didn’t provide Mann’s family, especially his father, with more information, more quickly – and that Police Chief Sam Somers is being portrayed as being forced to retire.

It should also be pointed out that it’s the City Council taking the lead on police reforms that include stronger civilian oversight and more transparency, though advocates say the proposals don’t go far enough.

No surprise, police shootings didn’t come up when Shirey was honored at the Nov. 1 council meeting.

Instead, council members praised him for helping get the new arena and downtown revitalization off the ground, and for pushing the city to catch up on infrastructure needs. Shirey says he’s just as proud of the $165 million upgraded water treatment plant – “you don’t mess around with safe drinking water” – as the shiny new Golden 1 Center.

His most important legacy, council members said, is stabilizing the city’s finances – rebuilding the city’s reserves, improving the city’s bond rating so it can borrow again, restoring public safety and other basic services and starting the contentious process of pension reform.

In their testimonials, council members praised Shirey’s knowledge and professionalism. He brought desperately needed stability to City Hall in the middle of a budget crisis and after three city managers in 18 months. Councilman Jeff Harris called Shirey “level-headed and even-handed,” which for someone who has to please nine different bosses is crucial.

“It’s clear that you have been the right man for the job,” said Mayor Kevin Johnson, who obviously wasn’t so sure about that when he was the only one to vote against hiring him in August 2011. Now one of Shirey’s biggest backers, Johnson said he has done “an unbelievable job.”

Also on Shirey’s watch, a long-overdue renovation of Community Center Theater is finally underway. But as in Cincinnati, another legacy project – an expanded convention center – is less of a done deal.

Before leaving Cincinnati, he was unable to put together financing for a major expansion that boosters wanted. A smaller, less expensive version opened in 2006, five years after he exited.

In Sacramento, the City Council last month approved design work on a $170 million expansion that would add about 108,000 square feet of exhibit space. But it’s possible that the project could change significantly. Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and others say the city should think bigger, though it’s unclear where the money would come from.

Even with the unfinished business, Shirey’s exit here is much smoother than it was in Cincinnati. Here, his contract was extended twice. Then to give Steinberg more say in picking the new city manager, the council tapped Assistant City Manager Howard Chan to serve until at least next June.

Shirey, who attends his final council meeting as manager on Tuesday, says he doesn’t plan to have any input on his successor. After 44 years in various municipal roles, including nine years as executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, he plans to continue his side job as a USA track and field official (his specialty is pole vault). He’s working on Sacramento’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic trials.

He said he’s leaving with some sadness, but with much satisfaction that he made a difference. Council members agree that he’s leaving the city in far better shape than he found it.

For a city manager – for any leader, really – that’s a pretty good legacy.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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