In his first two months in office, Mayor Jim Gray hasn't been shy about wading into swamps to wrestle alligators. The question is: Will he keep it up?
Gray moved quickly to launch management reviews of Lexington's troubled jail and emergency call center. He was involved behind the scenes in last week's ouster of the two top officials of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, where poor management seemed to be at the root of longstanding problems.
Last Monday, Gray asked for the resignation of Fire Chief Robert Hendricks, saying he had not demonstrated the level of leadership the department needed. The flash point was Hendrick's failure to manage overtime, resulting in an $80,000 overage that was on track to grow to $500,000 by the end of the year.
If the chief refuses to resign, the Urban County Council will ultimately decide whether to fire him. Council members voted unanimously Thursday to support Gray in gathering information that could lead to the chief's dismissal.
Gray said in an interview Friday that, after nearly four decades as a business executive, he is comfortable with this part of his job. "This is what you do as a manager," he said. "You're a problem-solver."
Gray, who is on leave as chief executive of his family's firm, Gray Construction Co., said experience has taught him that nothing can do more to diminish an organization's efficiency or morale than poor leadership.
"It's always blamed on the employees," he said. "Employees are in search of leadership. When it's not present, the issues really elevate themselves."
Will more heads roll? That depends, Gray said. He created the Mayor's Office of Performance Management, headed by Sheila Hupp, who held a similar job in Irving, Texas. Her task is to work with city division directors to set standards and measurements of success.
"This is not an event, it's a process," Gray said. "But we do have a moment in time because of the financial crisis to adapt, adjust and learn better ways of operating."
While Gray said he is determined to run government more like a business, it is still government, which means politics. Gray was elected with backing from Lexington's police and firefighter unions, and his transition team reports reflected their dissatisfaction with both the fire and police chiefs.
So is Police Chief Ronnie Bastin's job also on the line? Gray said no, because he doesn't see evidence of poor management in the police department.
What's more, Gray said, the police and firefighters unions' support of his campaign will not keep him from driving a hard bargain in contract negotiations, which begin soon. For the first time, he said, the city will hire a professional negotiator to assist management.
"My responsibility is to represent the people, the taxpayers, in these negotiations, and that's what I'm going to do," Gray said. "That involves respecting the work of our public safety employees. But it also involves driving a hard and true bargain that's best for everyone. Unless it's good for everybody, it's not good for anybody."
Gray said he will take the same tough approach to fixing the police and firefighter pension system, which looms as perhaps the biggest financial crisis facing Lexington's government.
When Lexington and Fayette County merged in 1974, the state General Assembly, over the city's objections, created a separate pension fund for city police and firefighters rather than putting them in Kentucky's County Employees Retirement System.
The city's pension system has always been underfunded, but the liability has ballooned in the past 15 years. Despite the city's borrowing $70 million through a 2009 bond issue, the unfunded liability exceeds $258 million.
There are many reasons for that unfunded liability, but a big one has been very generous disability benefits. A study showed that 42 percent of Lexington police and firefighters retire on disability, compared with 7.6 percent of Louisville police and firefighters and 8 percent in the country retirement system.
Gray said he will soon appoint a commission to study the pension problems and recommend solutions. I'm betting those solutions will require tighter rules and reduced benefits for future police and firefighters.
Convincing the General Assembly and the unions to go along with such changes is sure to be one of the biggest tests of Gray's wrestling ability. Alligators don't come much bigger than that.