Gary Leitzell’s first year as mayor
by Maha Kashani
Dayton City Mayor Gary Leitzell has survived his first year in office, but what a roller coaster ride 2010 was. His rookie year as mayor was not all sunshine and roses; it came with major challenges and harsh criticisms. Although he has been labeled a “no-show” mayor and a “goofball,” Leitzell has been able to hold his own as the new kid on the block. With visions that include marketing Dayton as a tourist destination, capitalizing on our Aerospace Hub designation to retain young talent and opening a grocery store downtown with his wife, I think he is only misunderstood.
I walk into the Mayor’s office to find him sitting at his desk reviewing my questions for our interview. Behind him is what he calls his “Steam Punk Dayton Patent Wall” with vintage photos of the major innovations that are a product of Dayton that he said can be found in the library. Brilliant idea! He looks up at me over his thin-rimmed gold frames in his light British accent and says “I’m just looking at your questions, this is quite the list.” I laugh, still admiring the steam punk wall, realizing that the 42 questions I sent him for our interview might have been overkill, and I say, “then let’s get down to business.”
Maha Kashani: Dayton is facing some major challenges, especially budget woes. With no prior experience, how was it coming into office and dealing with these challenges?
Mayor Leitzell: They’ve managed the bad real good here in Dayton. They’ve been doing it for so long that we’ve steadily downsized in increments. Now we’re at a point where we’ve started utilizing technology more. I’m trying to get information out to the people. There are perceptions that we are top heavy in staff, but I don’t think we are. We are being creative in trying to find ways to enterprise departments. The Recreation & Youth Services Division has been challenged to find ways to generate revenue. They are doing creative things like selling advertising on some of our equipment. We are marketing those services so we can expand our customer base. It’s getting people to think beyond the box, not just outside of it. If we could offer services that people would gladly give up money for, that’s better than beating them on the head and taking their money.
MK: What initiatives have helped reduce spending in 2010?
ML: Our recycling efforts have been major. We are up to about 400 tons per month and are shooting for 500 tons because then it’s free to recycle it. It currently costs $6/ton for the 400, which is down from $14/ton. My message to Fred Stovall, Director of Public Works, was that we have to increase recycling. We were paying $38/ton to put garbage in a landfill – there was a difference. We could save money by increasing recycling. The commission backed me and we struck up a deal with Rumpke to drop the recycling cost down to $6/ton and if we get over 500 tons per month, then it’s free.
MK: So if we recycle 500 tons per month, then we are doing good for the environment AND the city is saving at least $228,000 a year? How many people are actually recycling in Dayton?
ML: We’ve really made an effort to get our big bins rolled out. In those areas that have them, we have 35% participation. Effectively across the city, we expect 25 percent to 35 percent participation. We’re still working on it. They recently tried to jack up the fee, but I pulled that off from the commission agenda and said if we are going to jack the fee up, then we are going to offer better service. People thought I was crazy. If we’re going to jack it up to $1.25 a month, but leave the services the same, that sucks. Let’s jack it up to $2.25 a month, give everyone the option to have a blue bin, increase our recycling immediately which lowers the overall cost and allows us to schedule recycling pick-ups once a week to increase recycling more. I think I threw them off because I don’t support increases, but if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Give people back an improvement in the service and I think they will buy into it. We’ll see.
MK: How can we address the “Brain Drain” issue?
ML: We were designated as the Aerospace Hub of Ohio and are trying to use this designation as a draw to get technical jobs here. We are still trying to define specifically what the Aerospace Hub is and how to utilize it. It’s new and we have to design it ourselves to the best of our ability. Tying GE with UD is also going to help.
MK: What are we doing to make our community, especially downtown, more appealing?
ML: We’re looking along the river to do kayaking and other outdoor activities. We’ve got an Art Museum, an Air Force Museum, a National Aviation Museum and most of these things are free, but people don’t know about [them]. We need to market Dayton as a tourist destination and let people know what we can offer. And not just to young professionals. We want every young professional, every opportunist, every immigrant and every entrepreneur to consider Dayton. If we can get people from California to sell their one bedroom condo they can come to Dayton, buy a house, start a business, and even if that business fails, they can still retire on the half million they have left.
MK: There is a lack of housing options downtown. Is this something that has been discussed?
ML: Jeff Samuelson and Sandy Mendelson are working on this right now. The former Delco building will have first floor retail space, 2nd floor parking, moderately priced condos for young professionals and top-floor penthouse suites. Once they do that, then they can go across the street to Mendelson’s bigger building. Samuelson is also looking at some other options to attract things to the ballpark area.
MK: Do you know why you have you been labeled as a “no-show mayor”?
ML: No, because I’m not a “no-show mayor.” In 2010 I did 116 business-related appointments, 79 official engagements, 60 neighborhood association meetings, 40 interviews, priority board meetings, community festivals, church events, school board meetings, commission meetings, Downtown Dayton Partnership meetings, Coalition meetings, Chamber of Commerce stuff and more. All that adds up. Divide that into 2.5 days a week. It’s supposed to be a part-time job, but it isn’t.
MK: What would you say to those critics?
ML: I’ve got business people out there who say, “We never see him,” but you know what I tell them? I don’t see you either. Were you over on the west side at inner west pride day in the pouring rain when they cancelled the event? No. Were you on the steps of the Urban League last week in the freezing cold? No, but I was. I’m where I need to be, not where you think I need to be. I’m not Rhine McLin, I have a wife and kid so I want to be home by 8 p.m. I don’t need to be sitting at a dinner event praising the same people who get praised by everybody else. I need to be out in the community rubbing shoulders with real people and dealing with real issues.
MK: Has the media has played a role in creating this perception?
ML: Channels 2 and 45 have been very good with me. I’m on those news shows every month. Do you see me on TV at 6 a.m.? If not, where do you get your news? “Dayton Daily News?” If you’re believing what they are writing, then that’s the problem. They put spin on anything and try to make me look goofy.
MK: You must have thick skin … have you done anything about it?
ML: Riley is gone now, but I’ve been beating up on him all year. I wrote a letter to the editor challenging them on the way they print news. Somebody wrote in saying I was shortsighted, then they wrote the article on my roof making me look like a chump. It was an orchestrated attack. All of a sudden they are saying, “Leitzell is not doing anything.” Then the negative comments started … I was being called a pussy and shithead. I actually invited one of the negative commentators to come meet with me in my office and his response was “I don’t have time to meet with a douchebag like you.” I had to report abuse when someone was going around the “Dayton Daily News” website signing things as “Gary Douchebag Leitzell.” Oh by the way, it’s really bad that I have to explain the meaning of some of these words to my 7-year-old daughter who is standing next to me reading these comments. We did get the comments taken offline. You can’t post comments to news stories anymore, only the opinions. It all got out of control because I was willing to write them a letter challenging them on how they report news.
MK: When you were first elected, the “Dayton City Paper” did a cover story on you in which you stated, “We need to allow businesses to thrive. To this end, we should be looking at our ordinances and zoning codes and change them in ways that will cut down on red tape.” This has been a sore topic around the business community, what have you done over the past 12 months to help address this issue and make it easier for businesses to move into the city?
ML: We have a land use committee that meets one day of the month, then a plan board that meets another day of the month, but if there is a variance or it doesn’t meet code, then four weeks go by and you still have to go back … I have suggested that all those boards meet in one room at one time so you can do one presentation. If everyone says yes, you’re stamped on the spot, but if someone says no then they must give their reason and what needs to change for us to stamp it next month. I’ve proposed that, they are looking into whether it can be done. It can, it’s just a matter of making it happen. We are looking at how we can make things more flexible as long as they make sense.
MK: What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2010?
ML: Well, I can’t say my roof because I haven’t finished it (laughs). I haven’t made any enemy’s at City Hall, which is amazing. Leveraging technology like launching our online crime reporting, or things like putting the commission schedule online before the meetings. Not being afraid to use the technology.
MK: What was the biggest challenge you faced in 2010?
ML: Just getting people to think differently and not be afraid to mess up. It’s getting people’s confidence that I’m not the goofball that they thought I was. I think differently. I’m just subtle in my approach. I guess the biggest challenge was making people realize that I was not the enemy.
MK: What is the biggest opportunity for 2011?
ML: Citizens and the business community are gaining confidence to make a change. People are hearing that you don’t need permission from government. The message is out there. For all these years people were looking at their government for permission, but the reality is that you never needed it in the first place. I’m the first person out there in decades telling you that you don’t need permission. If you own the property, it’s up to code and you follow the guidelines, you don’t need permission.
MK: Do you have a “pet” project for 2011?
ML: Some kind of grocery outlet downtown. My wife and I are taking the initiative. The reality is that we are not going to get a national grocery chain to come downtown, but I think we can create a member-driven co-operative that would be better than a grocery store because it’s home grown. It would be citizens taking responsibility for where they are to solve a problem. If we put it within a block and a half of the current market, it will drive that area into becoming something more. I actually met with somebody about this today. It could happen and it won’t take 5 years. We could have it done in 12 months.
Reach DCP freelance writer Maha Kashani at MissMaha@daytoncitypaper.com.