An article written by my father, Mark Jones. Very funny and informative.
Mark K. Jones
“Mention local government in casual conversation and you get responses ranging from outrage over the latest municipal scandals to discussions of the local tax increases, road construction delays, or maybe interest in who will run for mayor in the next election. After retiring from 31 years in Cincinnati city government, what I remember is the strange situations and strange characters that City Hall seemed to attract. My vivid memories of the weird and unusual characters who showed up in City Hall made a much deeper impression than the endless cycles of policy debates, political conflicts, and the like.
From the 1970’s to the early 2000’s, I worked in a number of different departments and offices within the City of Cincinnati: Building Department, Department of Neighborhood Housing and Conservation, Economic Development Department, Community Development and Planning Department. All involved administrative and operational work in housing development, neighborhood development, and business assistance programs. It certainly had its ups and down from a career perspective, but I retired as a middle manager with a record of accomplishment.
But what is most memorable to me and catches the interest of my friends are the bizarre characters and situations that I encountered my years in city government. Early in my city career I worked for the Building Department in an inner office with several other folks. To enter that office, you had to walk through an outer office with three or four desks. It was the typical warren you find in older city buildings where office space was cramped and jury-rigged to fit inflexible floor plans. Both offices were busy places and the others were always coming and going.
It was not uncommon for everyone to be out of the office with just one person remaining in the office. One day, in the inner office, I looked up and a little balding man with a very red face was standing next to my desk. He started demanding that I get the City to pay for fixing his car which had been damaged by a pothole. “Sir,” I said, “I don’t have anything to do with that.” I told him that he would have to go to another office and offered to show him the way. He got very agitated and start shouting, “The City has to fix my car!” All the time he was poking his finger into his forehead which was getting redder and redder. Then he started shouting again and again, “There’s a plate in my head and it’s gonna blow!!” Calmly I walked him out to the hallway and pointed him to the other office. “Phew”…..I thought another wacko moved on and I could get back to work.
Back working on some report that everyone has long forgotten, I looked up again and there was a fireman in full gear and a big axe. He asked me, “Where’s the bomb? There’s a bomb threat for this office.” I gulped….”BOMB???” I started to get up and evacuate. But he stopped me and said I had to stay and identify any new packages or boxes that had arrived in the last day or so or those with unknown content. The office was a mess as always with never enough file cabinets or storage, but it was the same recognizable mess and a quick look revealed no new or unidentifiable boxes. He left within 5 minutes. In retrospect, I guess that the fireman was playing with my mind, knowing that 99% of bomb threats were false. But young, naïve me didn’t know that and I was frightened. Then “Bingo”, I thought, it must have been the guy with the plate in his head! I didn’t even get his name, but I called the Safety Director’s Office and shared my suspicions. I never heard any more about this.
In the same office on another day, I looked up and there next to my desk was a young man in bib overalls, a plaid flannel shirt, and a bushy beard. I started to ask him how I could help, but he interrupted me declaring, “I am Jesus Christ”. I was dumbfounded….another nut, I thought! So being quick witted (one of my only highly developed skill sets), I said, “Sir, because of the separation of church and state, I can’t talk with you.” He wanted to know more about this separation of church and state. I told him it was in the US Constitution and he asked where he could find more about this. I directed him to the public library, hoping they had experience with nuts and could deal with him. I ushered him out of the office with directions to the public library. I grinned to myself and thought, “Another nutcase moved out of our office….”
Twenty or so minutes later, my phone rang and I answered still in a chipper mood. It was the Mayor’s Office. Did I send this “Jesus Christ” down to their office to ask about the US Constitution and separation of church and state? “No…No, “I stammered, “I sent him to the public library for that information.” Grumpily they accepted that answer and hung up. One of the absolutes I learned early in my city career was about the chain of command. You never directed anyone blindly to see the Mayor or City Manager; only higher management dealt with these exalted personages.
I am a big reader and in those years I often spent my lunch hour at the public library. I would check books out and they would get tossed on the side of my desk or floor, where I would retrieve them upon leaving the office at the end of the day. One of those books sitting neatly aligned upside down to me on the door side of my desk was an expose of the Teamster Union. I recall that I had finished reading it and planned to return it to the library at lunch. Again, busy another unread, useless report, I looked up and a large man in a very shiny and stylish suit stood next to my desk. In a gruff voice, he announced that he was Joe (or Frank, Sam, etc.) from the Teamsters to see a Councilmember (name also forgotten). I indicated that he should retrace his steps and walk down the hall further to the left. He looked down and saw the book. Accusingly, he asked, “You read this book?” I lied (another example of my quick witted nature) and answered, “No, I just checked it out.” As he turned to leave, he barked, “It’s a waste of your time; it’s garbage!” I breathed a sigh of relief, no beating for me. I was an alarmist and there surely was no beating or anything subtly or otherwise threatened, but he scared wimpy me.
These were some of my memorable encounters in a career than mostly prospered in my early years in city government. In the early 1980’s when the housing development functions were moved into a new department, Neighborhood Housing and Conservation, I moved with the functions to another building about a block from City Hall. It was very common for projects to fall far behind schedule because of delayed negotiations, tardy document preparations, and slow movement of paperwork through City Hall for execution and implementation. I would then visit the Law Department, Budget Office, Finance Department, etc. to persuade, cajole, beg, my fellow city employees to move projects along to the next bureaucratic stop. This meant a walk down the block instead of down the hall.
One beautiful spring day, I walked into the back door of City Hall. I saw a young boy of 6 or 7 run up to the wall fire alarm and stand on this tip toes to pull the alarm. The alarm blared and a neutral voice started giving instructions to evacuate the building. I gently grabbed the young boy’s arm to hold him for the authorities. A young woman ran around the hallway corner and shouted “Let Go of My Son!!!” I retorted, “He pulled the alarm”. She smacked the side of my head with her fist, grabbed her son, and ran out of the back entrance to City Hall. Stunned, I watched the hundreds of city workers stream down the stairway and out the back exit of City Hall. Defeated I walked out to the sidewalk and waited for the fire truck. I told the first fire fighter what had happened and he laughed, “It’s nice day for a fire drill.” It had happened so fast I couldn’t give much of a description of the mother and son and the firemen didn’t seem to care anyways.
But those were also the years that I was a close observer to some less benign incidents. One very dramatic one involved a character named Jimmy Hardy. According to talk around the office, Jimmy had been in and out of prison on a number of charges. He had notoriously organized a downtown march celebrating local hero and Olympic and Pro boxer Aaron Pryor, secured a parade route, and invited local politicians to honor Pryor. Of course, Pryor had no knowledge of the event and didn’t show up, though there still was a Jimmy Hardy parade and prominent officials scrambled to avoid embarrassment. On another occasion, Jimmy announced on the local African-American radio station that teenagers needing summer jobs should show up at that week’s City Council meeting. Hundreds showed up and City Council unaware of the job promise tried to proceed with its normal meeting. A near riot broke out.
In the mid 1980’s, I was assigned to development efforts in the West End neighborhood and the Betts-Longworth Historic District Project (BLHD) and became directly involved with Jimmy Hardy. Cincinnati is a city of strong neighborhood identifications. Neighborhoods have local community councils with strictly advisory powers, but council politics can be highly contested and conflictive. Jimmy Hardy was involved in the West End community. It had a small, sad business district and occasionally one of the two competing neighborhood business district groups would ask me to go door to door to the local businesses and discuss the City’s small business assistance programs with the business owners. At that time, the West End housing was overwhelmingly public housing and the neighborhood’s residents only had cash to spend at these businesses the first week of the month, after welfare checks arrived. It was incredibly difficult to run a thriving business when your customers only had money to spend in the first week of the month. Jimmy let me know several times in asides during meetings that he had seen me making my business development calls to the West End’s small businesses. That is, “through the scope of my high powered rifle” he told me that he had watched me making these calls. Being young and probably naïve, I dismissed these comments and kept fruitlessly passing out brochures on City small business assistance programs.
Getting shot became a topic of concern again a few years later, when we met with the police about safety at another local community council meeting. We discussed whether it was prudent for us to wear Kevlar vests. The police thought that the meeting would be peaceful and the shooting threats were just idle talk. We didn’t wear the vests and the meeting was placid. Another day in a meeting in the Budget Office, we heard four or five loud bangs. I thought out loud, “Were those gunshots?” They were; it was a West End businessperson murdering a West End activist in the street in front of City Hall.
But Jimmy Hardy was not out of my City Hall life yet. The BLHD was a collection of early vacant, historic 19th century row houses and apartment buildings that remained after Urban Renewal and construction of public housing had demolished most of the historic buildings in the West End. These were scheduled for demolition until the historic conservation movement gained currency in the early 1970’s and the City pledged to get these historic buildings restored. A decade or so of plans for rehab and restoration had failed and I was assigned to get this neighborhood brought back. At the time I thought that this would be impossible and this would be the end of my career.
The next plan called for a Chicago developer to redevelop all properties. This was understood to be the last chance; failure, we thought, would mean demolition of all the buildings and light industrial development. We held the inevitable evening meeting with the developer, neighborhood representatives, and Vice-Mayor Ken Blackwell (African-American and chair of the Council Finance Committee). Jimmy Hardy was one of the neighborhood activists. The Chicago developers proceeded to outline their plan and answer questions. Ken Blackwell is a large man; he played college football and briefly pro football. Jimmy Hardy was a small man, slight and barely over 5 feet tall. As the meeting progressed, Jimmy and Ken keep exchanging what I perceived as “FUCK YOU” looks. Suddenly Blackwell and Harding stood up and started fighting!! Blackwell had Harding in a head lock and was smashing uppercuts into Jimmy as best I could tell as they rocked and stumbled around. Another lady West End activist jumped on to Blackwell’s back repeatedly shouting “You’re gonna kill him!!” The rest of us were absolutely stunned and immobilized with shock. Then suddenly, they stopped fighting. To my amazement, everyone sat back down at the large conference table and the meeting resumed. I could only sit there and wonder….”What the HELL was going on?” Within a few minutes, a policeman walked into the room and said, “What’s the problem?” I can only guess that someone must have called the police during the fight. Blackwell calmly told the officer that everything was under control and the officer left. The meeting soon ended and everyone went their separate ways.
For days afterwards, I kept waiting for the press to call me. Surely, a fight between the powerful Ken Blackwell and a neighborhood activist would merit press interest? And I absolutely did not want to be part of any press interest or media story concerning a fist fight involving the Vice-Mayor. But the press never called and I never discussed the incident again until years afterwards. This Chicago developer proposal for BLHD never got funded. Instead the BLHD project went forward with a different, but very successful rehab and new residential construction program for BLHD that won a number of national awards. Despite the huge success of this redevelopment, I was never able to interest new Councilmembers, City Managers, and new Department Directors in trying the same model in other neighborhoods.
Later in my career, my job responsibilities were more in the areas of small business development and small business loans. I would regularly get calls from the receptionist and walk out to meet with some small businessman or aspirant small business person. Often, they declared, “I want some of that Free Money!” There was a public perception that the City had money to give out with no strings attached, no interest, and no repayment for small businesses. City Council members would often refer citizens interested in small business assistance to our office. This could lead to some amazing meetings with these applicants.
The applicants were a real hodgepodge of types and qualities. Some had extensive business plans; others had financial information on scratch paper or note pads. Many proposals did not seem to have any chance of success. Several stand out. One gentleman came in with a proposal to start a bakery. He had an extensive business plan with detailed financial projections. As a colleague and I perused his documents, it was clear that this proposed start-up had a very large number of employees, especially supervisors. Usually successful small businesses kept employees to an absolute minimum and the owners overworked themselves in the first few years to insure success. We reviewed the roster of proposed employees with the applicant: Bakery Supervisor, Bread Supervisor, Snack and Donut Supervisor, etc. We asked where the he fit into this matrix. “Oh no,” the prospective bakery proprietor replied, “I’m allergic to flour. I can’t work at the bakery. But I love the idea of bread, donuts, and the like.” We politely concluded the meeting and told him we would review his proposal in detail.
It was always difficult to finance restaurants. Restaurants have a very high failure rate and usually involve substantial investor funding. I always cringed when aspirant restaurateurs opened a meeting with, “I love to cook.” Running a successful restaurant is so much more than just “loving to cook”. An applicant came in for an introductory meeting one day with a proposal for a chic Manhattan/Soul Food fusion restaurant in a neighborhood business district setting. There was a business plan, financial projections, and a very professionally printed elegant menu. Except that many items on the menu were misspelled. “Fried Chiken Mahettn” accompanied other items like “Grets and Greyns”. The spelling was inconsistent. He seemed offended when we asked about the spelling errors. He assured us that they were just minor mistakes. This restaurant did open without City assistance and lasted a couple of years before closing.
I always argued that when we (as the City’s representatives) failed to say bluntly and honestly that a proposal made no sense and had no prospect for success in our opinion, we were just raising false expectations. Instead we would tell the applicant that we would carefully study their proposal. If the applicant was persistent, we would ask for market studies, more financials, more of something in the hope that they would go away. Some applicants would persist for months and years as we strung them out with requests for more information. But the City just could not muster the courage to be honest and frank, that was too confrontational and risky from a political perspective. Saying “No” to citizens did you no good with the City Administration and politicians. Denied applicants complained to the politicians and the higher administrators feared the backlash from these complaints. So we strung out the applications that had no chance of approval with requests for more information or more documentation.
There are probably local government employees in back offices that rarely interact with the public. But I expect that the many employees that do interact with the public have stories similar to mine. So next time you have any contact with municipal officials, please remember that they may have just had to deal with someone who is not as rational and calm as you are. Be a little forgiving. The post 9/11 security measures may have lessened the number of nutcases and weirdo’s that visit municipal facilities. But the tradition that local government is open to everyone will probably keep these types walking into local government offices.”