Sunday, May 25, 2008


Interview was conducted on Friday May 26, 2008 with Mayor Grace.
Interview & photo by: Terry M. CostiganAbby Chenoweth contributor.

TMCNEWS: We’ll start with the fire department, you’ve taken the step to take Captain Pronesti and move him — now is it the official title interim fire chief, would that be his title?

Mayor Grace: I believe we will refer to him as Fire Chief but he is on an interim basis. Honestly I don’t know if we have figured that out if his title is interim fire chief or fire chief on an interim basis what have you. For all intensive purposes he is our Fire Chief until further notice.

Chief Zielinski conveyed the appropriate information to Director Eichenlaub to satisfy the Director to place him on medical leave act or extended sick time pending some follow up information from his Doctor which will be forthcoming. But as of backdated to may 7th - his last day at work was may 6th so his first day off on sick time was may 7th so from that day forward he’s on sick leave, so that was all recognized and put in writing yesterday. And after that — then recognizing — prior to that Assistant Chief Dempsey was acting as acting Chief in the absence of the Chief.

The Chief has several options available to him to determining who is acting in his absence and he has had a standing policy most of the time he has been Chief, I believe where in his absence the Fire Marshal, in this case, Dempsey acts on his behalf when he is on vacation of off sick for a day or a week or a month, whatever it may be. So it’s kind of a day-to-day thing. Sometimes it has been many days in a row, but it’s still kind of a day-to-day event. So general leadership challenges that we have had and in general with the Chief present and then compounded by his frequent absence and the uncertainty on a day to day basis as to whether he was going to be there or if Assistant Chief Dempsey we felt that it was in the best interest, knowing again that Chief Zielinski was going to be out for an extended period of time to put someone in on an interim basis and we chose Captain Pronesti largely because he is going to be the next chief due to the civil service process, he scored highest on the exam – that was certified by the civil service commission.

TMCNEWS: So before this the policy – the way things have gone in the past is that it was up to Chief Zielinski, it was his policy, as far as who would take his place on a day basis or a week basis if he was vacation, but it wasn’t a contract with the union as far as the procedures.

Mayor Grace: No, we can intercede, the Director can intercede as to who that person would be, but we — this administration – have left that up to the Chiefs of police and fire to chose their replacement in their absence and historically in the fire department they have – it’s been usually between the two either the fire marshal acting as Chief in the absence or the Asst Chief that is on shift on a given day. Where it would rotate day to day that person would be acting chief.
TMCNEWS: So then your move to go in and replace Dempsey with Pronesti – was it purely because what happened with Dempsey and the letter that he sent you or was this a matter of well its gonna be a long time that Chief Zielinski will be away from his office and we’d like to have a more…

Mayor Grace: It was a combination of the two. Without the actions of Mr. Dempsey the day before, we might have waited until Monday or next week or something.

TMCNEWS: It was coming though?

Mayor Grace: But it was coming, yes, but we felt we needed to act immediately. Based on the over reaction in his attempt through that letter to make sweeping policy changes that were inappropriate for a person who is acting chief on a day to day basis and certainly without consultation of the Director or myself.

TMCNEWS: Do you know what prompted him to send that letter?

Mayor Grace: I don’t know.

TMCNEWS: Was out of the blue for you?

Mayor Grace: Yes, quite surprised.

TMCNEWS: When you received the letter, did you have a conversation with him afterwards? Did you see him in the office, was that…

Mayor Grace: Yeah, I was coming back from a meeting out of town when I was read the letter, and not having it in front of me, hearing it on the phone while I am driving in the car, you know, there were little nuances that were hard to distinguish whether he had put these actions into place or was preparing to do so – that I wasn’t quite clear on and even having the letter in my hand it was not all that clear. So I talked to Asst Chief Dempsey and asked him then if any of these actions that he had described in the letter had been officially put into action and he said no that he was simply beginning the process. I asked him to hold that off ‘til we meet tomorrow, which would have been yesterday, and we’ll talk that out as well as some other matters that we had pending to meet with — we had a tentative meeting scheduled aside from that on the redistricting.

TMCNEWS: Now that came into question with members of the recall committee that I met with this morning talking about the redistricting. Now is that being done by you, your service directors, or in consulting now with Chief Pronesti or how is that working?

Mayor Grace: Yeah, it will be in concert with Chief Pronesti and this office.

TMCNEWS: So this will be based on station 1 that we have now on Cedar, station 3 and station 4?

Mayor Grace: Yeah, the actions of late are more the finer points of a policy change that took place back in August. Back in August when staffing was reduced from 17 to 14, that was the major action. That was the crux of things.

The way it has played out in practice we’ve seen in the days since then is that station has only been open 15% of the time which averages out to be one day per week. It’s my opinion that the Chief should have acted before now recognizing that its open so infrequently that he should have taken more aggressive action to redistrict without the use of that station. The fire service requires smart individuals making smart decisions along the way. A lot of what they do is instinctive, reactionary, you know, based on, repetition and their training and when the Asst. Chief is at a fire scene and he’s got clocks going off in his head, knowing or having an idea of when the next units going to be responding and what’s left to cover the city and when your left in a position of not instinctively knowing from one day to the next whether one station is open or not it creates an extra level of processing that is not healthy in the fire scene.

TMCNEWS: You need something more constant then?

Mayor Grace: If the station were open half the time, you know, it would probably be looked at differently, but the fact that it is only open about one day a week and with the prospects of some injuries we’ve sustained in the last couple months it’s likely to be open even less. So, it’s just not a smart way to run things, to leave that station open with such infrequency.

TMCNEWS: Back to the fire real quick. You have confidence in Chief Pronesti?

Mayor Grace: Yeah, I do. I am optimistic of his leadership and he has wanted this for a long time. He has grown up with fire service. It’s kind of in his blood. I think he can be an effective leader for the department.

TMCNEWS: Now, what do you say to those that, and this happened back when the memo first came down and you had people picketing out in front of your office this year, was that Mayor Grace is closing that station. What do — how do you respond to those people?

Mayor Grace: I’ve lowered minimum staffing and I have not been quick to distance myself from the charge that I closed the station and I don’t run away from that because it’s a likely consequence of lowering the staffing from 17 to 14 so I don’t shy away from that, but that is an action of the Chief. We actually, when we proposed it, suggested going down to 15, from my prospective and those around me, we felt that we could keep 4 stations open with 15 and when we charged the Chief to go back and figure out how he would configure things with 15. He felt anything less than 17, given how close those two stations are that he wouldn’t recommend keeping the fourth station open if he had less than 17 firefighters and he said you might as well take it down to 14 and we’ll keep the three stations open. So that’s the one point. And the next point..

TMCNEWS: and that was in talks with Chief Zielinski?

Mayor Grace: That was with Chief Zielinski back, the end of last summer, summer of 07, in like July, August, maybe because minimum staffing officially took place on August 27th. Now as it relates to when the ladder truck is used or not, that is purely the function of the Chief to make that determination and for most of this period of time the ladder truck has been made available. I was surprised as anyone that the ladder truck was not staffed to be an early responder to that fire (apartment building fire by Target), you know, that 17th street fire took place and others, that ladder was to be among the first vehicles to respond. So the staffing number did not effect whether it was available or not. It was just a conscience decision to run the pumper instead of the ladder. That was not a staffing decision. It was a priority.

TMCNEWS: And this was not, you as the Mayor calling down to Chief Zielinski or Dempsey that was in control that day to say that I want you to run this vehicle, this vehicle and this vehicle?

Mayor Grace: No. No such discussions took place.

TMCNEWS: We discussed this a little bit last time when this first came up—this can not be---I don’t want to say not a great time for you as Mayor but obviously there is a lot of friction between the department and your office and that’s probably not something that you wanted or envisioned as you fought very hard to get this job — how are you getting through this?

Mayor Grace: Yeah, it’s a challenge to be Mayor of an older industrial city in northern Ohio in 2008 and it’s been a challenging time because the economy has been poor. It’s poor nationally; the recession that’s talked about hitting this country right now probably hit Ohio and northern Ohio years ago.

Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs went, a good chunk of them in Lorain County and including Elyria. Peoples lack of employment in Elyria is not just from jobs that have left Elyria but the Ford Plant in Lorain and other places throughout the county where employment has been reduced has effected our residents. So as far as the timing, the time we are in, this is a challenging time, we have revenues that aren’t coming anywhere close to keeping up with expenses which means you have to make cuts and no matter where you make the cuts there is going to be unpleasantness. Somebody is not going to be happy no matter what we do. Whether it is fire or police of streets or any number of things that we are sacrificed, they are all being sacrificed and some departments object more than others and we have seen how the fire department is reacting to their cuts now, where every other department has experienced these cuts.

Now, streets for example, which is a sensitive issue, largely because of Route 57, I think that has mentally put a slant on peoples perception of the roads in Elyria as a whole because of how bad it has been and how bad it is. I am not satisfied or pleased with the rest of our roads on the whole either but I think that 57 exasperate people’s feelings about it. But even that said, we have increased license plates fees five years ago, and as a result the last five years, we have spent 53% more per year on resurfacing than we did the prior eleven years. 53% more these last five, then the previous eleven. In that same five year interval the cost of asphalt resurfacing has gone up 65%. So historically pricing of asphalt resurfacing has been pretty level going up slightly over the years, the last five years it has gone up and it’s largely a result of the price of oil. So while we are spending 53% more we are getting actually less pavement. So you combine that even with the fact that we have had five of the snowiest winters in history in these last number of years and plows are on the pavement on a regular basis, it’s been an extreme challenge. And, I guess I would say this to those who are critical of the situation in Elyria, is that they need to recognize the conditions of the road across northern Ohio, Lorain and Parma and Lakewood and particularly all the older cities that have roads maintained.

TMCNEWS: And although they may see that other roads are being resurfaced like you said, when you hit 57 it all kind of hits you.

Mayor Grace: Right. Meanwhile, when I took office in December of 1999 that’s the summer that the state changed its paving policy relative to state routes. Prior to that, state route 57 was the expense of the state of Ohio. They changed the policy so at that time state routes when they entered municipalities became largely the responsibility of that municipality. It wasn’t like that before.

Now the other stretch of 57 that was rebuilt a number of years ago, about 10 years ago, the stretch along Midway Mall area was rebuilt and that didn’t cost the city a penny. That was entirely a state project. So now came the next step and now it became a 20 million dollar project on the city. 20 Million dollars. It’s been a monumental task to get the funds from outside sources and primarily federally through NOACA also from the state – it’s been a major effort to get those funds. Even with that, just our local share is close to 3 million dollars and 3 million dollars is quite expensive for the city considering it was a liability that we didn’t even have.

TMCNEWS: Do you think that its tunnel vision on some people’s part, that it’s that they don’t look at the whole picture when they want to criticize you or anyone else sitting in that chair, when they say that the mall sucks, the downtown area is bars and trouble—do you think that they are not able to see the whole picture?

Mayor Grace: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. You know, it’s that these are challenging times and I’ll come back to that, but adding onto the other items, here are two items.

Street lighting; Ohio Edison has tripled the charge for us over a three year period, we now pay about $250k a year more for our street lighting then we did three years ago. $250k more.

Fuel and gasoline expenses have gone up by over $350k per year, over what it was several years ago. (TMCNEWS: For city vehicles?) Right. So just in those two items, with those two expenses, street lighting and fuel for our vehicles, we pay over $600k more per year more then we did, even just three years ago. So, those are increasing expenses and its caused us to have to shrink everything else and fire is one of them as others have before them.

TMCNEWS: Since you mentioned that, Mayor Krasienko is having his administration look at take home cars and other people have questioned when they see city vehicles sitting on side streets and driveways – is that something that your administration is going to look at?

Mayor Grace: Yes. We’ve taken a closer look at it and reviewed our policies, and we’re contemplating adjustments but it’s very minor – the impact of that on our expenses are very minor. It’s a few thousand dollars and it reduces productivity by having employees have to change cars between their personal cars and the city vehicles, so it’s questionable. In fact, that is why we do it in the first place; it’s all about being more efficient.

TMCNEWS: On their way into work, they can stop somewhere, a job site or something…

Mayor Grace: Right. Or when they are off of work and get called in for things, as they do, those that have the vehicles, that’s their case. So, assigning vehicles to employees and their abilities to take them home it’s all geared toward cost savings. Now those cost saving measures and policies need to be reviewed as circumstances changed. The price of gas is a prime example. Gas is much more expensive then it’s been in years past and that may change the financial ramifications of it. What made sense ten years ago or so may not be as clear-cut right now. But, clearly that and other policies are trying to save money and make the city work more efficiently.
Cell phones, we have many more cell phones with employees now then the city had ten years ago. One, it speeds communication. You can get decisions made much quicker because you can talk to that department head instead of a pager and waiting for a call back, or you can have more sensitive conversations that you couldn’t have on an open radio frequency. The cost of cell phones keep going down. We’ve increased on communications just like that but we’ve reduced our costs substantially and increased our productivity substantially.

Given that the revenues are not keeping up with the greatly increasing expenses, its, when you look at it on a finer level you’d be amazed at how we are able to keep doing what we are doing in those circumstances.

I take great pride in all we do, even with losing the revenue. There are talks about management studies beyond just the fire department, and I welcome it because I am always looking for ways to be more efficient but I take great pride in how we are able to squeeze so much service out of the limited dollars that we get. I take great pride in that and we’ve had other cities in northern Ohio that have been audited by the state and they have used Elyria as a benchmark because they have seen how well things operate here. Most of our peers have had to lay off employees for the last number of years. We’ve had none of that. But going back to your questions here about peoples perception of things, its just a difficult economy and people are sensitive to things they weren’t sensitive to in better times.

Going back to this last fall, there were 6 or 8 incumbent Mayors that were not re-elected. From Avon Lake and Canton and Independence and so many cities. You know, Lorain brought in a new Mayor and it was questioned whether the two year two term incumbent Mayor could have been re-elected given these kind of circumstances. Its just that the Mayor’s the point person in people lives as it relates to elected officials. When schools are closed, and the announcements, my phone rings and people are critical as to why I am letting the schools be closed, so, I mean, people equate their daily governmental life with the Mayor.

TMCNEWS: The decision, although financially saves the city money with the fire department. And like we discussed before, you live in the district Two, could not have been the easy one, even though, like I said you are going to save money. Before you came to that final decision was it a matter of, well, even though we are going to save this kind of money, maybe we should still continue the way that things are going or was it writing on the wall?

Mayor Grace: Relationships between the fire department and myself have been strained for a number of years now. Because we have been trying to keep costs under control as much as possible on a variety of little things. In fact, in 2004, for a 10-month period we reduced staffing in the same situation. From 17 to 14 then. Again, it could keep costs under control and at that same time we were still benefiting from the tax credit measure that had been in place for 6 months that year. It still had some residual revenue coming in from it after the next year that kind of bought us some time in keeping the staffing at 17.

All the while, the police department, and they are a different animal, in how they are able to manage their operations. There’s more flexibility within their way of doing things then there is within fire. They have been witnessing year in and year out where they have been told to hit a number on the budget and they usually – well they always hit below that number. Only to see us take 2, 3, 400k dollars near the end of the year to put it over into the fire budget.

TMCNEWS: Because they will come in under budget and then you will use that money to---

Mayor Grace: the fire department. So, while we’ve maintained the status quo within the fire department for the better part of these years we have been – it’s been largely at the expense of the police department. A service that through the 2015 process as well as the calls we get on a regular basis and those who come to consult with daily wish to see more police service. They would like to see more police patrols patrolling the downtown, quicker and shorter response times and acting more on a preventative basis with the neighborhood impact unit. Clearly, Elyria is a little different from another city when you look at the polls of what people want in their community, safety relates to crime. They want to see more police presence and that is just an overwhelming desire of Elyria to do that, and needed. Fire is obviously very important, but, the adjustment that we have made, while they will disagree, we have been able to demonstrate to most peoples analysis that the adjustments have been minor in impact and they have been helpful in terms of revenue.

Those stations are 50 seconds apart in transportation, and are portions of the district two that are just as close to Cedar Street as to Kipling. When you take in fact that one of the residents that has been critical lives on Pinewood, Cedar Street’s station is just as close to her home as the Kipling Street station because they both have to get to East River and travel south and they are right in the middle of those two stations. So anything along East River and even South to Robin Park and that area off of Chestnut Ridge that the quickest way to get from Broad Street to anywhere in their neighborhood, Cedar Street is just as close. So when you recognize that portion of the district that is just as close and accessible by Cedar Street, Station 1. Then you also look at the properties immediately around Station 2 and they are only 50 seconds away from Cedar Street and the standards call for basically 5 to 9 minutes in response time, and this can be described in different ways but, from the time that our department receives the phone call to the time that standards suggest we be at their door is a 5 minute response and for everyone else in the event of a fire it needs to be there within 9 minutes, which is an additional 4.

TMCNEWS: The outside stations, is what you are saying?

Mayor Grace: Yes, you need, full department, in our case, to arrive to a fire scene to properly attack the fire. So, all of the houses around Station 2 are well within the 4 minute response or 5 minute response of the Cedar Street station. And there is just a very small pocket that is in any way questionable and even then it is 50 seconds.

TMCNEWS: Now, when you read Chief Dempsey’s letter, and the one thing that he wanted to do was get rid of EMS or first responding to EMS calls, did you at all look at that and say well maybe that is an option because…

Mayor Grace: No, no, didn’t even – it’s not even worth a conversation over it. We can clearly, without any doubt, any question whatsoever, we can provide EMS service with the resources we have and do so better then most any other community in Northern Ohio. It’s not even something to discuss. Normally, I would not have responded to the newspaper as forcefully without having consultation, in this case with the acting Chief, but I was quite confident in saying that those things were not going to happen.

We get six medical calls per station per day, well, I’m sorry, we had about, last year, about 4300 calls in their entirety some of which were not emergency calls. Things like CO2 detectors going off, what have you, events that they travel without using lights and sirens. Add them all up and it was 4300 last year, divide that per day, divide that by three stations, that is one call every six hours. We can handle that number of calls with three stations.

TMCNEWS: You do the round table at the college, is that right?

Mayor Grace: We do that at Time Warner’s Studio, at their offices.

TMCNEWS: Do you think that people just aren’t informed enough? Do you think its not, if they are not reading the paper or they’re not happening to see, because you seem more proactive as a Mayor speaking publicly then we have had in the past. And, like we have discussed before people may not be seeing the overall picture yet. Do you think people just aren’t having access to that or maybe not looking at it clearly?

Mayor Grace: You have touched on something very, very important. The round table does reach many people. I get comments from people almost daily that see it. We pretty well cover the highlights over the given month. Things that even the people who read the paper regularly certainly miss it on any given day and you can miss the whole subject matter in a day. Clearly, people are not getting the full picture. No fault of any source, newspaper, round table, or any of them. It’s just that we’ve learned through the 2015 process had became very, very clear because we had a lot of regularly engaged members of the community who read the paper regularly and are engaged, who would say “the city needs to do this, the city needs to do that” and to find out that the city was doing this and that. Or maybe largely do this and that. And it became very obvious, well; the city needs to do a better job of communicating that, that they are doing those things.

For example, of late, it comes up regularly in little side conversations when you run into people on the streets, that they think we have had layoffs in the fire department through all of this. That when you close the station so to speak that you have been laying off firefighters – no one has lost their job in the entire process of this. We haven’t lowered the number of firefighters. We still have the same numbers. Historically we have had more people that have been assigned to work, scheduled to work, therefore more would show up to work. That number has come down. The minimum staffing number, which is going to remain constant, is the main measure of the service level. But in any case, there have been no layoffs anywhere in the city in the years I have been here. So people think there have been layoffs and that is one of the missed — but in fact we have realized, we have hired a firm that is going to help us to determine a communication plan and it will be a combination of doing mailings and a quarterly newsletter and clearly further developing our website, broadcasting, how to get broadcast messages out to people.

One of the things we are looking to do is, water bills are mailed out on postcards, and we can put one or two lines of messages on them. What we are preparing to do is to be able to put that into an envelope and allow it to serve as an information package and we think that is a very important part of helping the community to understand what we are doing and to get more legitimate feedback as well. Not to say that we are always doing everything perfectly, because we are not, but, there are some criticisms out there that are based on not all of the information.

TMCNEWS: What does it do when you hear that now you have some citizens who are recalling you? Who have gotten so upset for whatever the reasons are that they want to recall you? Does that affect your performance in any way? Does that make you hide in the corner and say “I don’t want to do this anymore”?

Mayor Grace: It’s frustrating because I know and people around me know that I work and the team around me works very hard and I believe that all things considered we are doing an absolutely exceptional job for the city given all of the circumstances that are largely outside of our control. So it’s frustrating when people don’t agree. But I certainly appreciate and understand it and know that people make their judgment based on far less than all of the information and that its not even fair or practical for them to understand things in the depth that many of us do. So that is where it is our responsibility to effectively as we can, do things. But there is a level of frustration that it is why they recognize, but there are some that don’t see it that way. This kind of discussion, while it is available within the charter, I think that those who put this provision in the charter, I don’t think that this is what they had in mind. You know, when there is a body of people who disagree with a decision or two (TMCNEWS: For the recall?) So, it is what it is and well, I will deal with it if it comes to pass and I will deal with it. I won’t be the first one to deal with it.

TMCNEWS: Do you see things turning to the positive in the near future for Elyria?
Mayor Grace: There are many things that I am optimistic about. You know, building a new high school is going to be a major shot in the arm for the community. Route 57 is going to be a big shot in the arm. It’s going to be, both events are going to be major turn arounds for our city. Going from a physical facility like the high school to a state of the art facility is going to be a dramatic turn around in that regard. It will be a very profound impact on the community.

Take Route 57, which is not only that of convenience and people experience the roughness of the pavement but it is also a major reflection of our city. People that pass through our city and how they judge the city in part by that. So that pavement will be done beautifully and turn lanes are going to be extended so that traffic will go through it better.

It is going to have state of the art signal devices such that when emergency vehicles approach it they can turn all of the lights red so that they can go through it easier. Nice lighting, better lighting where no lighting currently exists. About half of it doesn’t have lighting at all and will now have it. Nice landscaping because as the road was cut through the city it kind of cut corners and exposed a lot of back yards and things and we are going to help screen those things off. So it’s going to have a profound impact on the city. That will be done next year. So that will be big.

We are working more aggressively with NOACA to get more funds into the city. We are trying to get the county to assist us. I am hopeful that the county will come to our aide here in the next year or two. I am hopeful, but I don’t know if that will happen or not. Not that I think we are going to do better getting outside funds for our roads. Those are some things. There are a lot more regional discussions about how Northeast Ohio needs to work more cooperatively and I think over time we will benefit from that.

TMCNEWS: The 57 project now, it is going to be bumpy for a little while but have patience, there is a brighter future down the road.

Mayor Grace: Yeah, and at the pace they are going, it is going to be in pretty good shape by the end of this year. They put quite a number of their crews on the project right now. Hopefully it will stay that way. Their contract gives them until a year from November to complete.
TMCNEWS: So, down the road there will be a turn around for the city?
Mayor Grace: Yeah, I am extremely optimistic about it. We have realigned expenses within the fire department right now be able to expand the resources within the police department. We have this income tax measure to pass this fall. You know, that is a critical part of our revenue and the services we provide. So yes, I am extremely optimistic about the future of Elyria.


Blogger e318 said...

Another great post TMC...Nice Job!!

8:40 PM  
Blogger oldjoe said...

Great work TMC!!! The Mayor just doesn't get it. He says he is looking for leadership but, he does not want input just someone to follow orders. He micro manages every department in the city. Chief Dempsey did not follow the rules and was sent on his way. This interview was a true revelation of the Mayor's Personal vendetta against the Fire Department. TMC keep up the good work. The spin doctors in this administration will continue to deflect, however, I believe the citizens will see throu gh the lies and show him the door

4:58 PM  
Blogger Otis said...

Great job TMC! Your acknowledgement of the Mayor as proactive and positive is a feather in your cap. Too bad more people, prior to complaining, do not take the time to talk with him and/or research issues. Just because individuals have made poor decisions in their life and are constantly looking to find others to blame for their lot in life, does not mean this city cannot be recognized for its ability to function positively with many good people contributing. This city is not perfect, but the Mayor and the city are not as bad as a few people want to make them out to be.

1:32 PM  

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