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Grasping the Situation

As dust settles at City Hall, William Harrell takes over.


As the smoke clears from the city's first major brouhaha in a new government with two branches of power, Harrell is charged with cleaning up the mess. He's quietly become City Hall's captain, in charge of steering a rocky ship. As part of last week's budget compromise, Harrell must, over the next three months, find another $14 million in "efficiencies" to balance the books.

It's an arduous task that would give any city manager a case of sweaty palms. Harrell, forever the calm, unexcitable one, doesn't blink.

"I'm comfortable when the heat is on," says Harrell, sitting in his office June 16, moments before his first staff meeting since City Council and the mayor broke their stalemate. "We could have taken an across-the-board cut, which I think is a copout. What I'm committed to is a strategic process."

Whittling down $14 million means nixing unfilled positions through attrition, combining resources and departments, eliminating waste wherever it may lurk. Wilder's effectiveness and efficiency committee is mobilizing.

From where will the savings come? "At this point, I don't know," Harrell says.

There are many unknowns. At the staff meeting last week, the city's department heads — many of them with "interim" attached to their titles — gathered around a long meeting table on the second floor of City Hall. They were calm and relaxed, even jovial at times, their attention clinging to Harrell's every word.

"We are just very pleased to be in this position," Harrell tells the room.

Finance Director Andrew Rountree calls for a round of applause. They talk about an upcoming training conference in Alabama. Marie F. Coone, interim director of parks, recreation and community facilities, informs everyone that city pools are about to open.

"Today it was a bit more relaxed," says interim Fire Chief Robert Creecy. "I think everyone has just taken a deep breath."

Considering that the budget ax looms, the relaxed atmosphere seems to suggest that Harrell is doing something right. His job is to make sure the city is running smoothly, seamlessly, even with more than 10 department director positions vacant. It's a short-handed city grappling with big changes.

Not to mention the tug-of-war between Wilder and City Council. Harrell was thrust into the mix, forced to fire off memos and press releases lambasting City Council, a role he isn't accustomed to playing. Dinner with his wife, Johnna (he has two daughters, 20-year-old Alextra and Charity, 14), have become less frequent.

"My role has been to buffer the staff from the politics," Harrell says.

Harrell's jousting has surprised some on City Council, but it hasn't diminished the respect most have for the city's top bureaucrat.

Councilman William J. Pantele says he understands Harrell's predicament.

"Some of the communications [from Harrell] were out of character, but we understood where that was coming from," Pantele says. "In spite of some of the recent battles, I don't believe that has diminished him in council's eyes at all. … He's very even-tempered, very sincere and honest."

Perhaps it's a sign of things to come — like a run for mayor in 2008, perhaps? Harrell doesn't bite. As a kid he wanted to be president, but right now he's comfortable running the city. As for the future, he shrugs it off — sort of. "I might be interested in a higher office," he says, laughing. S

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