He’s a Fleming fan

Published 12:11 am Saturday, October 25, 2008

With due respect to the various organizations that select a Citizen of the Year for this community, I’m declaring my own. She’s June Fleming, Franklin’s volunteer city manager, who epitomizes community service every time she reports for duty at City Hall.

Fleming, who interrupted her retirement to fill the void left by Bucky Taylor’s departure in July, was like manna from heaven for a city government — and citizenry — that was starved for leadership.

Her professionalism, candor, gentleness and tightfisted stewardship of the people’s money have turned former liabilities of city government into strengths.

And, amazingly, she’s working for free.

Fleming, after a long career in public administration, including a successful tenure as city manager in Palo Alto, Calif., came to Franklin to slow down and enjoy life. Public service, though, is in her blood. When city leaders asked her to help out during a critically important leadership transition, she responded.

Fleming’s positive effect on city government was evident Wednesday night, when the City Council convened for final deliberations on a fiscal 2009 property tax rate, which must be set during the council’s regular meeting Monday night.

Department heads who’ve previously resisted the realities of a difficult budget climate joined Fleming in developing a plan to reduce spending by 5 percent during the current fiscal year and keep the taxes of beleaguered property owners in check.

If council members themselves didn’t already understand the severity of the fiscal crisis at hand, Fleming gave them a sobering assessment. Her bottom line: “We’re going to have to learn to do more with less.”

She said publicly what observers of city government have known for years: The city budget is a convoluted, murky mess that even two certified public accountants have struggled to get their arms around since joining the City Council this summer.

The state auditor’s scathing report on the Southeastern Public Service Authority this month should be a wakeup call for city government to cease its long practice of purposely budgeting jobs it has no intentions of filling, then diverting tax dollars to unbudgeted projects.

Under Fleming’s leadership, those shenanigans will stop.

“This budget is hard to read,” Fleming told the council and citizens Wednesday night. “It is hard to understand. It takes hours to sift through it. It is hard for me to go to a department and follow their costs through and understand what dollars go to make what work. If I am here, before we do another budget, we are going to budget school. We are going to have budget training sessions.

“When we hire a finance director, that person’s first responsibility is to develop an understandable budget. I call it the people’s budget. You cannot make intelligent criticism if you can’t follow stuff through. You should be able to do it easily. We’re all going to understand it.”

As Fleming spoke, a fresh breeze of transparency and citizen-friendliness rippled through council chambers. The guy behind me whispered to no one in particular, “Isn’t she amazing?”

A day will come, hopefully, when skin color isn’t a relative aside, but in a city whose decision-making too often is colored by race, it should be noted that Fleming is black. Significantly, since Fleming’s arrival, the City Council has yet to cast a 4-3 vote along racial lines. She’s a healer and consensus-builder who refuses to be distracted by the politics of race.

Some, apparently, haven’t cottoned to Fleming’s strong leadership, prompting Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson, at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, to clarify the majority of council members’ solid support of the interim manager.

Old regimes die hard, clinging desperately to power they no longer have. A new era has arrived at City Hall. To the extent that it succeeds, Fleming will deserve much of the credit.