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Cincinnati's new city manager is 'team no sleep.' Here's her plan for the next few months

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Courtesy
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City of Cincinnati
Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long

Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long is one week into the job as the city's top administrative official. She talked with WVXU Local Government Reporter Becca Costello about her top priorities and how she plans to lead.

You've said your top priority coming in is making local government more accessible to constituents. And I know that part of that is contingent on more meetings and learning a little bit more before you dive into any changes. But what do you think that might look like? What might people expect to see different over the next year?

Internally, we've been having, from day one, a lot of meetings actually talking about that, and really trying to strategize. And I think the key is not only just for us to strategize within the City Manager's Office, but also to bring directors in is a first step. But simple things, for instance, when you walk into City Hall you have the guards, but then why don't we activate the space in the corner to have somebody, an actual person, to guide you through City Hall? And ask questions — what do you need to navigate you from one floor to the other?

But there's also the level of how do we make it so we tell our directors that you have to go to the community council meetings, and not necessarily as you presenting outwardly, but to show up to listen. Because I think an attribute that I have is that I am a really good listener, and I understand there's a time to talk and there's a time to just hear what the people want, right? So I don't want to just be us presenting out, because that's where we often are asked, is to come into situations to kind of tell people updates, right? But I think the work really starts with us just being one with the community and hearing them out. So that is something, from directors to the whole staff, we need to have some beef in it to where it's a requirement for you to have to be out there in different community councils.

But then there's a little beyond the community councils because we understand those are the people that willingly volunteer. So what does that look like to get to the group of people that don't want to go to the community councils, don't want to come to government? And that's where I think there's going to be a lot of conversations about how do we make that a welcoming opportunity for all? So it's very early on, but we're going to continue to dig into those conversations and really find a way to activate very quickly, definitely within 60 days, so you see some immediate actions.

The police chief search — anything new on that you can share?

I just recently met with staff that was project-managing the police chief search. What I asked them to do was to have a brochure that I'm working with communications to deploy out so that we can start actively recruiting, because my thought is, we have to have enough time for things to sit out there so that we can start getting people interested in Cincinnati, right? And it gives us enough time to pivot if we need to do more from recruiting.

One thing that I want to lift up — and it kind of was also the issue within my city manager search — is we are very close to Florida as far as public records. [Editor's note: Long is referring to media outlets publishing the list of 21 applicants for the city manager position.] So when you apply for a job, we're gonna have to do a lot of convincing and massaging to let people know we really want you here, we really want you to interview, but that's a risk, right? So there's going to be a little bit more level-setting that we're going to have to do and being transparent on the search firm to make sure that they they break that to them, you know, educate the candidate and try to encourage them to apply as well. So those are things we're working through.

So are there options to have meetings with candidates before they've officially applied?

Absolutely. What I want to do is I am already an active recruiter, I'm a seeker. [I know] people are like, 'Hey, you only want external!' I don't know what I don't know. But what I do know, and I'm just gonna be very candid, is I am a Black woman in this position. And I do know that I need, regardless, the best for the community and the best to make sure that I have my left (hand) solid. And if that becomes internal or external then great, but I want to make sure that we have the foundation covered so we have the best people to come to this amazing city.

I think this is true all the time, but it feels like now especially, there are so many different things that feel like they could be the top priority for city administration: police chief search; other vacancies; housing; pedestrian safety — just a lot of things that have been part of the public conversation. How do you balance that in these first couple of weeks? And making sure nothing falls through the cracks?

I think the great thing is me coming from ACM [assistant city manager], and I had a pretty robust portfolio of departments. So what helps with that is they're operational, they're external. So I really have a pulse of essentially what is going on and what we're doing and even what we need to communicate in those absences if there's something that happens. I am one of those that loves chaos. I don't need to organize it in order to execute. I always say I'm swatting at gnats. And that's because, you know how the gnats are — they keep on popping up regardless if you have some fruit, you're like, where are they coming from, but they're always everywhere! And that's exactly what it is. And in City Hall, it's just swatting gnats — you get one and another one comes up. And it's just a matter of quickly executing, knowing what you know, knowing what definitely did not work before, which I already have, and just OK, let's throw this at it and making sure that I clearly communicate that to directors, in addition to the elected people. And that is my goal.

You have tended to be very hands-on in some of these initiatives. Are you going to be able to continue that? Or how is that part going to change? And will it be difficult for you to maybe back off of some things?

Well, you know, the funny thing is, is that's the part that gives me life. So I remember talking to the mayor, and he's like, "Sheryl you're going to have to pull yourself out of it," and I'm like, "But that also is the part that gives me life!" So talking with the people that schedule me and my schedules, that's the areas where I'm like, "You need to make sure that I have time to do A, to do B; to be out there in the community, to do this." So it's just a matter of being very strategic with your time. And not only that, but I do also respect and understand that's the reason why I'm here. So why pull back just because I have a new position? That is exactly why I'm so happy because it's like, OK, we're here, I have communicated this to you and this is what I love doing — engaging with all of you, you being Cincinnatians. So it's just moving my schedule around so that I'm able to be out there and do the things that I love. And that's exactly what I'm committed to.

Cincinnati has a unique form of government with the council, mayor, city manager. What do you see as the significance of that, as you're stepping into this role? Do you see it differently than maybe other city managers have?

Well, the funny thing is this is the second city I've worked with. [Editor's note: Long previously worked as city administrator for North College Hill.] Regardless of big or small, I don't see that really any different, because the way that I see it, regardless if you're an elected official, you have people that you are held accountable for. It's my job to keep you in the loop. It's my job to definitely make sure I administratively manage staff, but I still have to make sure you know the stuff that you need to know. You know, everybody's like, "The charter says this and that," but I think I see the administrator or the manager as being that person to make everybody look smart. That is my job — to make sure that you are prepared and ready to go and that the staff that I have that we are lifting up the stuff that you all say that they want, the public. So I don't really take it that deep. You know, all everybody wants is just to be informed. That's from constituents, that's from elected officials, that's from the mayor; they want to know when things happen, that you're plugging 'em in to give perspective when needed, and that you're ready to go and prepared to address it when you need to. So I try to keep my life simple. There's too many things that you can get bogged down into. You keep it consistent and you keep it easy.

Something we've heard a lot from the mayor and council, especially at the beginning of the term, is that this is turning over a new leaf for City Hall. It's a new administration, almost entirely new council. How do you see that? Do you see this as a new chapter for the city and where do you fit into that?

I do. This pick is so funny, because I enjoy being very much Sheryl. And Sheryl is an imperfect person. But the funny thing is, is the minute [former city manager] Patrick Duhaney gave me the keys to be an assistant [city manager], I'm like, "You sure you want this? Because you can't keep Sheryl in the corner." So the fact that they — council and specifically the mayor — said that we love you the way that you are, and staff knows how I am. It's almost like where I've been having conversations through the week where everybody, and specifically other Black women, are like, "Oh my gosh, you have given me light because you are authentically and unapologetically you: quirky, the crazy, the smart, the silly, just yourself. But yet people believed in you to lead this city." And staff knows who they're getting.

Somebody said I'm a breath of fresh air. I don't know if that's true, but I just think that there's so many potential people that are in companies that are amazing, but don't get the opportunity to lead. And I have that, right? And so I do think it's a new direction, because Cincinnati is saying we want you to be bold. We want employees to be bold, we want you to be yourself, we want you to laugh, we want you to be happy, and we want you to recruit and bring other people to the city. And we want you to continue to give us the talent. And they let me do that. So that's huge.

And although I have a lot of respect for the prior mayor [John] Cranley, I don't know if I could have been his city manager, right? But I could be a city manager for Mayor Aftab [Pureval]. And so that speaks to what we want out of leadership. And so for me, I would hope that everybody understands, this is a new day for Cincinnati. This council and this mayor cares about making sure that people are able to live their lives, and they are led by somebody who is authentically like them. And that is amazing. That says a lot and we should really just take it while we can and be happy about it.

Something that is part of that conversation that we hear a lot too is the culture of City Hall and the importance of what that culture should feel like. Since you've been here so long, what does that culture mean to you? How would you define that? And what do you think you want to be different moving forward?

Every room that I've been in, the culture is about people just doing the work, and very passionate about what they do. And when an elected official, council member calls, or the mayor, whatever, just making sure that they do good, right? Staff is just really about producing. But I think there's that in-between that we need to lift up. There's the teamwork, right, of making sure we continuously are having fun together, staying out of our silos and breaking it up to keep it consistent; that all departments are problem-solving together. There's a level where I just want people to just feel lighter coming to work, because their passion and their purpose is aligning. What does that look like? I don't know. But I think we're going to fall into it without even planning. The leader sets the tone. And there's only one tone I'm setting. So I would hope that that definitely just pyramids down to the staff, and the culture just becomes, like I said, just people enjoying what they do, but being happy and celebrating while they're doing it on behalf of the community.

Something that was a topic of debate for the last mayor and city manager administration was development deals and who can negotiate those. Is it appropriate through the charter for the mayor to be involved in those negotiations? What are your thoughts on that?

I think I have great talent, and great staff — specifically, assistant city manager Billy Weber. I think that we have enough talent internally to make sure that we're negotiating in the right — we're here to keep elected officials safe and out of trouble. So nonetheless, I think there's a level where we can get the meat of the deals and get it to the point where council votes on it, but we know what their vision and their expectations are. So let staff do what they do. And prepare it in a way so that when council is ready to go, it's with the vein of the interest and things that they want. Staff is talented and knows exactly how to execute with elected officials' interests in mind. So I see that that divide definitely needs to happen and is happening. And we will continue to operate that way.

And that divide is between staff and the council, but also between staff and the mayor?

So what would happen is developers talk with the Department of Economic Development, they talk to assistant city managers — we are the ones doing negotiation on their behalf. And then there's a level of once the deal needs to get sealed, it goes to council. That's exactly when council will get it — once it's cooked and booked and ready to go. And they vote on it to be approved.

But where does the mayor fit into that? Same thing, like the mayor is seeing it at the same time as council?

A little bit before — well, he is our boss a little bit, you know. But before it gets to the council floor we have internal meetings discussing what the terms are, and then we move on to council. But we have an amazing mayor. So sometimes we need him to be the lure of people. And then he sends it to us. So there's a level where a company's interested, he then sends it to the administration, administration does the work, and then it goes back to elected officials to be ratified.

Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

I really am blessed to have this opportunity. And I've been saying this and it feels so redundant but clearly it's genuine and important for people to hear: I have the best interests of the city in mind. I am team no sleep, so please understand that. And I was team no sleep as an assistant city manager. So it's just important for me to translate and communicate to the public that I don't take this lightly. And I'm so excited to be chosen.

Becca Costello grew up in Williamsburg and Batavia (in Clermont County) listening to WVXU. Before joining the WVXU newsroom, she worked in public radio & TV journalism in Bloomington, Indiana and Lincoln, Nebraska. Becca has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including from local chapters of the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and contributed to regional and national Murrow Award winners. Becca has a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Becca's dog Cincy (named for the city they once again call home) is even more anxious than she is.