Strohm to follow Weakland’s footsteps

City employees shouldn’t expect to see much difference in leadership style now that City Manager Joe Weakland has retired and Finance Director Omar Strohm has taken his place as interim manager, according to Strohm.

“I’m not going to be overbearing, and I’m not going to micromanage,” Strohm said Thursday in his new and nearly bare office.

He also plans to seek input from his “expert” department directors, like Weakland, who treated leadership as a “shared function,” Strohm said.

And he doesn’t plan to deviate much from the operational strategy Weakland followed in recent months – strategy largely determined by the city’s Act 47 recovery plan, which management is bound to follow.

“Joe did a lot of good things,” Strohm said. Among the best was to keep the city out of Act 47 for as long as he did.

When Weakland interviewed him for city employment in 2002, he asked Strohm how he’d feel working for a “bankrupt employer.”

Strohm said he didn’t mind and soon found out the city was perilously close to insolvency even then, he said.

Still, the city managed to put off entering the distress program until last year, by obtaining some additional revenue streams and through frugality. Strohm expects to encounter serious challenges.

One of them will be handling the three – or four – jobs he now holds, he said.

In becoming interim manager, he isn’t giving up his previous responsibilities as director of finance and personnel – departments that themselves used to be led by separate individuals.

And in becoming interim manager, he’ll assume supervisory responsibility for the property maintenance code department, a task Weakland took on a couple of years ago.

Another challenge for Strohm will be employee morale, which isn’t good, because of Act 47 cost-cutting restrictions – including a wage freeze and benefit reductions.

Those restrictions will go into effect next year, when the three union contracts the city is negotiating to replace current deals will take effect.

Strohm, however, plans to focus on the positive, because “that’s who I am,” he said.

At some point, morale will improve, he predicted.

Yet another challenge will be the negotiations, partly because they don’t permit workers hope of raises or benefit improvements.

They would been more hopeful for those workers a little more than a year ago, when a then-recent state Supreme Court ruling in a Scranton case allowed labor arbitration rulings to override Act 47 plans that limit wages.

But a General Assembly revision in Act 47 itself restored the earlier understanding that arbitrator’s rulings must conform to recovery plans.

Still another challenge is the city’s loss of employees who have retired because of the Act 47 restrictions.

Many of those retirements are in the police department. More retirements are sure to come.

That means a major “loss of institutional knowledge,” Strohm said.

Still, non-uniform union President Scott Campanaro is looking forward to working with Strohm, who has always been “fair [and] open to new ideas” and who “plays by the rules.”

He has also not been needlessly difficult.

When there have been “gray areas” in contracts, he has decided in the union’s favor when there was no cost to the city, Campanaro said.

After that, he agreed to memorandums of understanding to codify the changes, he said.

Firefighters’ union President Bryson Peterman foresees no “heated conflicts” with Strohm, who has always been on an “even keel” with firefighters.

“He’s not exactly the type of guy who yells at you,” Peterman said.

But Peterman worries that Strohm may not be able to do all the work involved with his “three critical jobs.”

“It’s a lot for anyone to take on,” Peterman said.

Some important matters could “fall through the cracks” or be overlooked, he said. Act 47 coordinating team leader John Espenshade expects a smooth transition in the manager’s office.

“I just think we’ll continue to move forward with implementation of the Act 47 plan,” Espenshade said, adding that he wishes Weakland well.

“Local 299 wishes [Weakland] the best of luck,” too, Peterman said.

“Hopefully, the change is a step forward for progress and the revitalization of the city,” he added.

Strohm plans to meet with staff this week to start laying out his managerial strategy.

He also needs to familiarize himself with aspects of the recovery plan he hasn’t studied, he said.

He previously focused on his own areas of responsibility – finance and personnel.

He’s not nervous about the new job, he said.

But he’s a tad “apprehensive” about the responsibilities that go beyond those he got to know well as finance and personnel director.

For now, he’s interested in becoming the city’s permanent manager, he said.

But that interest is subject to modification based on his on-the-job experience, which will show how well he performs and how well he likes the work, he said.

“I plan to take it one day at a time,” he stated.