City Administrator Howard Lazarus
Asking "Why can't we?"
From the September, 2017 issue
Late for an interview at City Hall, I sprint for the strangely darkened stairway. A man blocks me, shouting, "Power's out!"
"I've got to see the city administrator," I insist.
"Howard's in the lobby," he says.
Looking around, I realize the lobby is full of people; Lazarus stands alone near the back. Knowing he's ex-military, I half-expect to hear him barking orders, but that's not his style. Short, with dark hair and eyes, he calmly explains that there's no word about when the electricity will be restored.
After considering stepping outside to do the interview, he decides against it, explaining, "I might have to tell these people to go home." Which he does--and twenty minutes later, the power comes back on.
Though he guessed wrong that July day, Lazarus, hired last year from Austin, Texas, has impressed people inside City Hall as a quick learner who also carefully appraises the big picture. "Two words: thumbs up!" Ward Three councilmember Zach Ackerman shouts in the phone when I catch him in the middle of campaigning for reelection. Less rushed, Ward Five's Chuck Warpehoski reflects that Lazarus is "not personally aggressive. He's a very congenial person. But he's very action focused, and he wants to see results."
That decisiveness was on display at his first council meeting, when Lazarus announced the city was firing ReCommunity, the company that operated the city's recycling plant. Staff had briefed him about the plant's "safety deficiencies," he says, and he saw no point in waiting.
Lazarus again acted quickly last October, when student Justin Tang was killed by a car while crossing Fuller Rd. by Huron High. Lazarus, who often walks or bikes to work from his north-side home, "was very, very helpful," recalls then-school board member Andy Thomas. "He said he would personally make sure that lack of funds would no longer be an excuse" for dangerous crosswalks. The Fuller crosswalk is now illuminated, and the speed limit is lowered
when students are arriving and departing--a request previously lost in bureaucratic limbo.
The tragedy sped up efforts to make Ann Arbor safer for pedestrians and bikers. Trained at West Point as a civil engineer, Lazarus also brought useful experience from Austin, where he was director of public works. Last spring, with much input from the schools, the city launched a campaign it calls "A2BeSafe," and this year's budget includes $2.8 million for pedestrian safety. The effort includes everything from improving signage and lighting to educating drivers on the novel (to Michigan) concept of cars yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks.
Previous administrator Steve Powers dealt with the aftermath of the Great Recession. Lazarus had the good fortune to arrive at a time when the pressure is finally easing. His first budget called for eleven new hires, adding staff in housing, the DDA, and information technology, and creating a new position, deputy administrator.
"I need help managing the day-to-day activities," Lazarus explains. When the position is filled next year, he says, he'll use the time freed up to concentrate on long-term goals for the city.
While all the hires were approved, it was not without dispute. Ward Two rep Jane Lumm, the only independent in a council of Democrats, argued that while the other positions might be nice, the city should first hire more police. (Police chief Jim Baird told council he's awaiting some retirements next year, but his training pipeline is already full.) Though Lazarus notes that only half the positions are being paid from the general fund, Lumm complained at a May meeting that "in the old days, adding a couple of FTEs [full-time-equivalent positions] would be a big deal."
That's true. Long before the recession, then-mayor John Hieftje, aided by strong-minded city administrator Roger Fraser, orchestrated a citywide staff reorganization. Departments were merged into larger units, and staff was slashed, mostly through attrition. "We were about a thousand [FTEs] in 2001," says mayor Christopher Taylor. "It dropped to 680 during the recession." Recently retired parks planner Amy Kuras recalls her own department shrinking from six people to one--herself. "I became much more efficient," she admits.
Taylor says "there's no question" city workers "felt the pressure" of the cuts. An employee satisfaction survey under Powers found that the staff were not happy campers. Lazarus anticipates a lot of turnover in City Hall--he estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the staff is likely to retire within five years. Council has approved extra funding so that new employees can train before the old ones leave.
The mayor calls the administrator "a champion of the staff." Lazarus says it's important that city workers feel proud of their jobs; he tries to keep Fridays free to get out and talk to them. The day of the power outage, I ran into finance director Karen Lancaster at the Kerrytown Sweetwaters--she'd moved a meeting there when City Hall closed. A twenty-four-year veteran, she told me that soon after he arrived, Lazarus stopped by to ask her how she saw her job. "No other city administrator has ever asked me that," she marvels.
Lazarus invites staffers to consider new ideas, asking them, "Why can't we?" do things that haven't been done before. And he doesn't hunker down in City Hall. He's been to the water and sewer plants, joined Natural Area Preservation crews, and worked with the fleet maintenance staff at the Wheeler Center. "People like seeing their senior leaders out and enjoying what they're doing," he says.
"I'm actually the first in my family to graduate from college," Lazarus says. A great-great-great nephew of poet Emma Lazarus (author of the Statue of Liberty's "give me your tired, your poor ..."), he grew up in a struggling middle-class family. His father was a draftsman, his mother a bookkeeper, but money was tight--"my mother for a long time was the primary wage earner when my father was out of work."
The family moved from Queens to Philadelphia when Lazarus was in high school. As a star student who also wrestled on a championship team, he was "lightly recruited" by West Point. The service academy's academic appeal was obvious, and the free tuition was compelling: "There was no other way I could go to college."
Attending West Point, says Lazarus, "was probably the most transformative thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime." He made lifelong friends there, and still draws on military values and skills. "Army officers learn to be problem solvers," he says, gaining "confidence that you can take on new challenges."
During his first posting, in Ft. Rucker, Alabama, he met Carol Rainbow through the synagogue in nearby Dothan. They celebrated their thirty-seventh anniversary in August. Army assignments took them to Hawaii, Maryland (where he earned a master's in environmental engineering and chemistry from Johns Hopkins), New York (to teach at West Point), and Colorado.
His engineering units "did roads, airfields, small buildings," Lazarus recalls. But as their daughters, Becky and Dana, grew, the family needed more stability. After fourteen years on active duty, he took early retirement, and the family settled in New Jersey. He served another eight years in the reserves, including time in Japan, while moving into public- and private-sector jobs in engineering management. Once their girls were launched (both now live in New York City), he and Carol moved to Austin, where they stayed for nearly eight years.
Austin shares Ann Arbor's enthusiasm for biking, and Lazarus was part of a small group of representatives who spent a week biking in the Netherlands to observe Holland's well-coordinated cycling system. He recalls proudly that he didn't set foot in a car from the time he boarded the plane in Texas to the time he returned.
"The thing I immediately learned," he says, is "that bicycles and pedestrians don't belong in the same place. Those who would say put bikes on the sidewalk--it doesn't work." In Austin, he put a lot of effort into creating "protected and sheltered" bike lanes, one right in the middle of downtown. Ann Arbor is only now planning its first sheltered lane, on E. William.
Though Ann Arbor is increasingly affluent, Mayor Taylor warned in a May budget letter that "local governments in Michigan are chronically under resourced: tax revolt-era state constitutional amendments (Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment) sharply reduce Ann Arbor's ability to benefit from economic growth."
"From a financial standpoint we have to make choices in what is acceptable in terms of services," Lazarus says. This month, he will present council with "revenue opportunity and options," including consideration of a city income tax for the first time since the Hieftje era--when it was quickly dropped in the face of public hostility.
Taylor says Ann Arbor has enough money to repair its roads--he promises a big improvement there over the next few years--and to fix its aging water and sewer systems. Yet Lazarus warns that the city can't be complacent--"it's a competitive world," he says. That's one reason he's recruited two volunteer advisors, former city councilmember Sally Hart Petersen on economic development, and retired engineer John Mirsky on energy and climate change.
Lazarus has worked in enough places to know how politics can mess with an administrator's career. One reason Powers left was the strain of taking direction from a council that seesawed between two factions, one generally favoring development and activist government, the other skeptical of both. Development was a hot issue in August's Democratic primary, costing the activists their supermajority on council (see Up Front).
At sixty-one, Lazarus is probably not too worried about losing his job. "I'm very fortunate that I have something I love to do, choose to do," he says. "Even as I get a little bit older, I still have a lot of enthusiasm."
But he's uncharacteristically vague when asked about his future plans, noting only that the "average life span for a city administrator is three to five years." He adds, "I will say this: that the community is great, and I could see staying here a long time"--happily retired.
This article has been edited since it was published in the September 2017 Ann Arbor Observer. The neighborhood where Lazarus lives, his title in Austin, and the subject of his master's degree have been corrected.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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