Changing the game

A final word with outgoing dayton mayor gary leitzell

By Alex Culpepper

In May of this year, Dayton’s mayoral primary election was the end of the road for incumbent Gary Leitzell. In that election, A.J. Wagner and Nan Whaley received the most votes and went on to face each other in the November election in which Whaley won. The Dayton City Paper caught up with Mayor Leitzell before he clears out his office and took a few moments to get his thoughts about the recent election, his tenure in office and the status of the city. During the question and answer session, J. Todd Anderson put pencil to paper to capture the mayor’s likeness. Here is what Mayor Leitzell had to say.

What are your thoughts about the recent mayoral election?

I’m disappointed in the voter turnout because only about 10 percent of the voters went to the polls, and that tells me that maybe the other 90 percent are not very happy. I don’t know, it’s just disheartening when 16,000 voters out of 93,000 come out to vote in a mayoral race when we had 58,000 in the presidential race just a year ago. I think it says there’s something wrong, and we need to figure it out. – Gary Leitzell

What would you say are your major accomplishments as mayor on the Dayton City Commission?

I think we’ve come a long way considering where we were in 2009 and where we are today. We’ve come an exceptionally long way. Four years ago, Dayton was labeled a dying city, and people were leaving. Basically, it seemed to me we had a depressed population, and over the past four years we have been able to instill some pride in citizens, pride in our businesses and things have turned around. We did some things that were right. We made a big push for recycling. That was something I advocated because it saved us money, and now we’re saving $250,000 per year because we have reduced what we put in landfills.

We began the Welcome Dayton Program. Immigrants were coming to Dayton and fixing up houses, and we needed to help them succeed and also attract more of the same kind of people, so we embarked on the whole Welcome Dayton concept. The city also has facilities people don’t realize we have. We’ve had a lime kiln since 1954, and I got the city manager to look at the value of that kiln, and it turns out we discovered the water department could generate two million dollars per year in revenue by processing lime sludge and selling back the calcium oxide for quicklime so it can be used to soften water. It disappoints me no elected official since 1954 asked that question or saw the potential opportunity to generate revenue for the city without raising taxes or placing a fee on a water bill.

One other thing I brought to the table was getting our Recreation and Youth Services Department to generate 40 percent of its budget outside of taxes. They do it through running ads, promoting events and charging fees for various services.

So, to go from the mindset of asking the public to give more money to finding our own ways to generate revenue, I think, is a big step. Now, businesses are interested in coming here. We’re on the national radar and people are excited about coming to the city. –GL

How has the city changed or improved in the past four years?

Our image has improved. We’re on more top 10 lists these days rather than bottom 10. Were doing a show with C-SPAN right now, and were part of their “2013 Cities Tour” featuring Dayton’s history in its American history programming. The bottom line is, people now are looking to feature Dayton for the good rather than the bad. –GL

Now, what were some of the frustrations or disappointments from your term?

I was disappointed I did not receive enough public support from our entirely democratic commission, and I understand from the beginning one of them wanted to run for mayor in the next cycle, so they would not do anything publicly to acknowledge what I did or make me look good. Now that being said, we all got along well enough, but if they had publicly supported some of what I was working on, we’d be further ahead as a city. Some issues will come down the pike in the next two or three years we discussed or generated in the last four, and all was just held up for whatever reason. –GL

What is the most challenging part of being mayor in a city like Dayton?

It can be overwhelming and there can be a lot of problems. As mayor, I’m asked to deal with housing issues, waste collection issues and anytime someone does something, citizens call and lodge complaints. It’s all about balancing what’s important. My way of dealing with situations is I don’t respond immediately, so I can cut out the emotional reaction, which tends to drive media coverage. Instead, I think it’s important to sit back and decide what is a common-sense solution to a problem. But as an extension of that, I never saw problems as problems, per se. I saw them as opportunities to come up with creative solutions. In the end, it can be overwhelming, but it’s all in how you deal with it. –GL

How would you assess the city right now economically and politically?

Economically, we have stabilized the last four years during the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’ve had budget surpluses, and we’ve lucked out on a few things: we got a rebate for workers’ compensation this year. We had a rather large payment come in from the estate tax, which has now been eliminated, helping us maintain a balance of budgets so that we have a surplus, and we’re using that money for infrastructure and technology.

Politically, we’re poised to keep moving forward in the next four years. What I worry about is our staff losing the innovation and creativity generated the last four years because some of our elected officials are disconnected from certain populations who could be a driving force for needed future changes. –GL

What issues does the commission need to deal with in the next four years?

Housing and jobs, but the reality is the government is not there to create jobs. Our job is to create infrastructure and policies so job creators want to come here, and I think we’re getting there. The whole idea of being innovative, creative and entrepreneur-friendly is going to spur a drive for people who want to be here and be self-employed.

We still have thousands of vacant homes – a $60 million problem here in town – and this year we had $5 million to deal with it. It’s going to take 15 to 20 years to solve the problem. If we can further promote Welcome Dayton and work for immigration reform and get more people here to fix these houses, we can make some strides. By changing the environment, we can get the private sector on board to solve the problems, but I don’t think government always gets that.

One other thing I think is important is promoting tourism. We have so many resources here in the area. We have museums, the arts, the Schuster Center, the Art Institute, the Boonshoft [Museum] and The Air Force Museum. Yet, I think we fail to promote them effectively and collectively to attract people to the region. We are not going to attract businesses here unless people are willing to come here and see what other attractions we offer. We simply must promote the region. –GL

Do you think the current primary system should be in place?

The system we have is geared toward two parties, and they have a certain amount of control as to who gets on the ballot. William Pace is currently looking at creating a third party and what it takes to get that done, and he has my support. Toledo has a primary, and theirs is in September. I think having ours here in Dayton so early in the year (May) creates too much of a time gap between the primary and the election, which is not good for the electorate. Also, for the Dayton race it’s supposed to be nonpartisan, so you really have no need for a primary. The primary in the two-party system determines which party candidate goes on to the election. –GL

If you could change something about the city what would it be?

Mainly attitudes. Back in the 1970s, we were a proud city, but I think we’ve lost that and became too much of an entitlement society in which the prevailing view is government should take care of problems. We as citizens must be responsible for our turf. We must be willing to pick up the trash in our street and maintain our yard standards, and I think some people don’t feel they are obligated to do the same. But I think too many of those who are responsible expect government to take care of those who aren’t. We must change that dynamic. –GL

What advice would you give someone running for commission or mayor in Dayton?

Do it for the right reasons. Do it to serve the people, not yourself. Too many politicians are narcissists, and I’ve seen that all around the country. Though I believe if you do things for the right reasons, you get the right results. –GL

What plans do you have? Will you run for political office? 

I have planned to run for County Commission. I had to sit back and evaluate where I would be most effective, and I had so many people asking me to stay involved. They realized just having me sitting at tables with some of these decision-makers could make a significant difference, just by having the influence and the connections I have with people and the community.

There is so much more the municipalities and the county can be doing together. I saw this as mayor, but as mayor I could not advocate for bettering other municipalities. As County Commissioner, I can fill in a lot of voids and start pulling things together. There is discussion all the time about creating a regional government, but we’ll never have a regional government until the people we have elected understand all of the elements of the county and municipalities. Also, we don’t have anyone in the county who has worked within the municipality. They get elected for the county and continue to work for the county. I think it’s a good move good step for me, and we will see how it plays out. –GL

To watch live footage of  J. Todd Anderson drawing our cover caricature of outgoing Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell or visit

 Reach DCP freelance writer Alex Culpepper at

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