The key is finding a balance.
That’s the strategy Ruffin Hall, Raleigh’s good-humored city manager, says he’s sought to apply to the thorniest issues he’s faced since starting in November 2013. And he’s faced many of those issues, especially downtown.
“Raleigh is growing and evolving from a big small town to a smaller big city,” Hall says, sitting at a polished wooden table in a conference room inside the city’s municipal building on a warm late-February afternoon. He’s wearing a brown suit with a red tie and speaks matter-of-factly. “There are plenty of cities across the country that would love to be dealing with the issues that we are currently facing. For us, the question is, how do we balance the interests of an exciting, active, engaging downtown so that everyone can enjoy that experience?”
In the spring of 2013, the city council voted 6–2 to fire Hall’s predecessor, Russell Allen, who had served in that post for twelve years, over a parking scandal and communications issues.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said at the time that Raleigh needed “to go in a different direction”meaning, she told the INDY recently, that the city needed someone who was able to get ahead of growth and who had a good understanding of how state government works. Hall, then Charlotte’s assistant city manager, seemed a good fit. His expertise in transit issues was a key selling point.
McFarlane praises Hall as a “visionary,” a talented communicator, and a team builder. In contrast, Allen had been unable to bridge the communications gap between the city’s staff and the council, she says.
But Allenwho still lives in Raleigh and declined to comment for this storynonetheless left big shoes to fill. He guided the city through its early downtown revitalization and helped it remain prosperous during the Great Recession. Staff members adored him, too; after his departure, department heads left en masse, with sixteen out of about fifty retiring or taking new positions.
His termination was, to say the least, contentious. As one former city staffer puts it, “Raleigh was a top-notch, award-winning team, triple-A bond rated, at the top of every best-of list you can think of. It was one of the best-run city governments in the country. Why fire the coach?”
And since Hall took over, his tenure hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
Last summer, disgruntled residents showed up by the hundreds to two public hearings on the city’s unified development ordinance, which suddenly and dramatically overhauled zoning for a third of properties in the city; the city seemed totally unprepared to field their concerns.
Many people felt that the city’s manner of enforcing new outdoor dining regulationspolice and fire department officers raiding bars and restaurants during business hourswas poorly handled,as well. Indeed, after nearly a year of debate, the city still has yet to finalize its new sidewalk dining rules.
Other big projects have lingered in the pipelineUnion Station and the Moore Square master plan, for exampleand taken years to get off the ground.
Regardless, McFarlane says she’s pleased with Hall’s work in a turbulent era. “Change was coming fast and furious, and what Ruffin brought to the table was anticipating a lot of those growth issues,” she says.
The boss is happy, but, to the average citizen, Hall is an almost impenetrable figure. He rarely speaks to residents or the media directly, relying instead on an extensively reconfigured public affairs department. Yet he’s also the most powerful unelected person in city government. The council almost always acts on his recommendations, which means that what he and his staff do behind the scenes has a very real impact on where the city’s headed.
And right now, critics say, on some of the biggest issues the city faces, especially transit and land use, Raleigh looks to be coasting rather than breaking new ground.
The son of educators, Hall, forty-six, grew up in Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in public administration at UNC-Chapel Hill. He held positions in town and city governments across the state, including Chapel Hill, Durham, and Wilmington, before working for twelve years in Charlotte.
Those who’ve worked with Hall describe him as bright, engaged, and, above all, devoted. Cal Horton, Chapel Hill’s now-retired longtime city manager, calls Hall “a thoughtful and democratic leader.” Pam Syfert, Charlotte’s city manager from 1996–2007, says Hall was instrumental in streamlining the city’s budget process.
“He also worked with citizen groups and business groups to implement projects,” Syfert says. “He can get people to think about the future and how we get there. There are always going to be things that people are going to disagree about in a fast-growing city. I know he can handle it. He’s not one to walk.”
When Hall came to Raleigh with his wife, Cynthia, a health care administrator, and their three children, he spent the first six months evaluating the city as an organization, meeting with staff members, department heads, and community leaders. After that, he restructured operations, aligning departments under three newly hired assistant city managers and a chief of staff who report to him.
In Hall’s view, the reorganization made the governmentwhich has seventeen departments and more than four thousand employeesmore efficient.
“As you get bigger, you have to get more sophisticated,” he says.
The change was pretty dramatic, one former staffer says. Whereas Allen worked with department heads directly, Hall now relies on middlemen. In some cases, staffers weren’t happy reporting to managers who were junior to them or who lacked expertise in specific areas.
Hall also began working with the mayor and council to develop a strategic plan to guide the city over the next several years. The plan is organized into six key areasarts, growth and natural resources, safety and communities, economic development, transportation, and “organizational excellence”and goals and action items are clearly laid out.
The city has made some headway. The council recently adopted a ten-year plan for the arts in Raleigh that bumps up city funding. The council also approved a new affordable-housing policy last fall. And the city now has a more robust economic development department, which is key to job creation.
While there’s been some movement on transitbike lanes installed on downtown streets and the adoption of a long-sought bike-share program, for examplethe city recently lost out on a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and progress has stalled in anticipation of the countywide transit referendum that will go before voters this fall.
City staffers have been involved in developing that transit plan, says Karen Rindge, the chair of WakeUp Wake County, which backs the ballot referendum. However, the city doesn’t plan to inform residents about how the transit plan will affect them specifically, says Damien Graham, Raleigh’s public affairs director, and will instead allow the county to take the lead. That may prove unfortunate, Rindge says, as a public information campaignthe city is not allowed to advocate for or against the plancould be crucial to getting the referendum to pass.
“There are council members communicating about it, but I haven’t seen [the city] do that much to publicize the plan,” says Rindge. “There have been presentations happening at community advisory committees from WakeUp and Wake County. But the city of Raleigh has not been leading on that.”
Graham says he’s “confident the city will participate in [the county’s] outreach.” But with Hall having been hired specifically for his transit background, it’s oddand a little worrying to transit advocatesthat the city isn’t taking a more proactive role.
Put simply, Raleigh can’t afford to see the referendum fail.
The mayor’s not the only elected official to sing Hall’s praises.
“I see him as being very collaborative in working with the council, and I see he has a very open communication style,” says council member Mary-Ann Baldwin, who voted against firing Allen. “We didn’t have that before.”
But while the city council, like the mayor, seems content with Hall’s performancethough most did not respond to the INDY‘s requests for interviewsseveral former city employees say that while communication between the manager’s office and the council has improved, it has weakened between the manager and staff members.
In other words, it suits the officeholders but not the bureaucrats.
Staff members’ concerns, they say, are shuffled off to assistant managers who can’t necessarily provide answers. While they didn’t always agree with Allen’s decisions, they say, they could understand the process used to reach them. In the current regime, however, the assistant city managers sometimes don’t even understand the issues involved, they say.
“These were smart people,” a former staffer says, “but they had some ramping up to do.”
Residents haven’t always been happy, either. Communication has been a particular problem, especially with high-profile issues like the unified development ordinance and the sidewalk-patios restrictions.
“There were a lot of people who really didn’t know what was going on with the UDO, so I think the city could have done a better job of informing neighbors and citizens,” says Donna Bailey, a neighborhood activist. “With getting that information out, it has to be a multipronged thing. The UDO was pretty complex to understand, so for people just coming into it late, it was a lot to grasp.”
The city did what it was legally required to do: it mailed out some forty-five thousand postcards to affected residents soliciting comment. When only eighteen hundred residents replied, the city assumed that everyone else was pretty happy. This was not the case, as the throngs who packed into council chambers last summer demonstrated.
Many said they were confused, unaware of what exactly these changes meant, and caught off-guard that the city would now allow a mid-rise apartment building in their historic neighborhood.
It was a debacle that the city took months to resolve. The sidewalk-patios debate took on similar contours.
Zack Medford, the owner of several downtown bars and a leader of the Keep Raleigh Vibrant campaign, says the issues his businesses faced last summer with the outdoor dining ordinance also came from a communications breakdown.
“We never had a conversation with Ruffin Hall,” Medford says. “Unfortunately, across the board with the patio stuff, [the assistant city managers] gave a lot more credence to the people screaming the loudest.”
In addition, sources say, city employees grew frustrated with projects started under Allen that took a long time to get off the ground under Hall.
The Moore Square master plan, for example, was adopted in 2011, but construction won’t begin until later this year because the city didn’t secure funding until last summer. Construction on the long-awaited Union Station began in January, after a premature groundbreaking ceremony last May, almost four years after the council committed $7 million to the project. And construction of the Lenoir Street-South Street two-way conversion project, badly needed to improve accessibility in the southern end of downtown, began just last month. It was originally scheduled for completion in late 2014.
While projects like those have many moving partsand while many had been affected by the economic downturnthe city manager is responsible for bringing these projects to fruition as quickly as possible. The buck stops with him.
Allen, for example, oversaw and orchestrated downtown’s revitalization, creating incentives to build the PNC tower and lure Red Hat, finding revenue sources to reopen Fayetteville Street, and working with the county to build the convention center. These were all tremendous, game-changing accomplishments.
All the while, Allen was able to maintain the city’s AAA bond rating and avoided having to lay off employees.
“In a way, Ruffin was given an unfair chance because he is compared to Russell, and Ruffin is not Russell,” says a former city employee. “He has different strengths and weaknesses that he is working on.”
Hall has risen to the occasion when the city has been tested. Raleigh was able to avoid the kind of riots seen elsewhere after Akiel Denkins was fatally shot by a police officer. And, though it took three weeks, the city eventually followed the lead of other North Carolina municipalities and passed a resolution opposing House Bill 2.
Work on the Dix Park master plan will soon begin. The new UDO is in its early stages, and development is booming again; how the city manages that boom over the next decade will determine the kind of city Raleigh will be for generations to come.
Passing the transit referendum this fall will be crucial to the city’s success, as welland could be Hall’s crowning achievement as city manager, if the city lifted a finger to help.
But whether Hall is the visionary McFarlane hoped for is yet to be seen. And, beyond providing services efficiently, it’s not altogether clear what McFarlane’s priorities are.
Under Mayor Charles Meeker, Allen recruited top talent and offered the freedom to excel, pushing Raleigh into its position of one of the best-governed cities in the country. But McFarlane feels more comfortable being in control, making sure services are provided and recruiting people who do that best.
In that respect, Hall was the perfect hire. He praises the city’s hardworking employees for picking up trash, repairing water leaks, policing, enforcing codes, and responding to emergencies, all the mundane things that keep the city’s gears turning.
His role as manager, he says, is to try to help the mayor and council. “If I have done that, I have been successful,” he says. He benchmarks that success by adhering to the objectives and action items laid out in the city’s strategic plan rather than by chasing after big opportunities.
Asked about her long and short-term goals, McFarlane speaks broadly about transit, improving the arts, economic development, and affordable housing, but she doesn’t get specific. She mentions the strategic plan, too, calling it “long range, really encompassing, really exciting.”
There may be nothing groundbreaking in the strategic plan, but it put the destinations in place, with a schedule that keeps the trains running on time. And under Ruffin Hall, Raleigh keeps chugging along.
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Man Behind the Curtain”