April 24, 2014

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Lorain city official hospitalized after firing

LORAIN — Tracy Udrija said she puts her heart into her job, and when Lorain’s community development director was fired Monday, it nearly gave out.

Udrija

Udrija

Udrija fainted in her City Hall office after suffering what she believes was a mild heart attack shortly after being fired by Service Director Robert Gilchrist. Udrija, 52, was recovering at Mercy Regional Medical Center on Monday night. She said she had a mild heart attack last year and was recovering from a medical procedure from last week.

The firing came just eight months after Udrija’s Aug. 24 hiring and four months short of the end of her one-year probation.

Gilchrist, who said he would temporarily succeed Udrija, wouldn’t say what specifically triggered the firing.

“It’s not the best timing, but what are you going to do?” he said. “She just wasn’t going in the direction that we wanted her to go.”

Udrija said the firing resulted from losing a power struggle with Gilchrist after a March “screamfest” between the two. Udrija said she told Gilchrist she worked for the residents of Lorain, not him. Udrija said Mayor Tony Krasienko promised when he hired her that she would be allowed to run her 20-person department as she saw fit.

However, Udrija said Gilchrist had other ideas, describing him as a micromanaging control freak. Udrija said she reassigned several employees within her department, which is down three positions, refusing Gilchrist’s demand that she fire them.

“If he doesn’t like you, that’s it. He holds a grudge,” she said. “There’s lot of good talent. There was no reason to get rid of anybody.”

A vacationing Krasienko couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, but Udrija said he was supportive after her March confrontation with Gilchrist.

“The mayor said, ‘It’s fine. Just don’t let Robert bully you,’ ” Udrija said. “I told Robert, ‘You’re not going to bully me. You can bully other people, but it’s not going to work with me.’”

Besides Krasienko, Udrija said City Council President Joel Arredondo supported her.

“She was doing a great job in community development in the short time that she’s been here,” said Arredondo, who described Udrija as “very open and transparent.”

Udrija said Gilchrist was angry that she allowed her secretary to backdate a memo requesting vacation time. Udrija said Gilchrist also may have been unhappy that she agreed to meet with Democratic mayoral candidate Chase Ritenauer, who defeated Krasienko in the May 3 primary and Republican mayoral hopeful Timothy Baxter after they requested meetings.

Udrija noted she was hired under daunting circumstances for a job whose primary responsibilities are job creation and overseeing the city’s housing programs. In addition to taking over after the worst recession since the Great Depression, she succeeded Sandy Prudoff, who’d run the department for 36 years before being placed on leave and eventually retiring in the wake of a federal probe of the department.

Besides overseeing the $1.8 million department and the $3.1 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program — a federal grant for demolishing and rehabilitating homes — Udrija said she had to compile documents subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general’s office.

While time consuming, Udrija said the probe was also a “godsend” because it helped eliminate a dysfunctional “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality that permeated the department during Prudoff’s reign.

Udrija said the department was stagnant while Gilchrist oversaw it after Prudoff left and that Gilchrist didn’t understand that economic development must be tied to housing improvements. Nonetheless, Udrija said she was productive, tapping into her experience as a private consultant and federal grants administrator for Lake County for nine years.

Udrija said she revamped Lorain’s energy and housing programs and started new programs to build eight geothermal houses for combat veterans with catastrophic injuries and an incubator for nonprofit, business development groups.

Choking back tears, Udrija said it breaks her heart that she’ll no longer work with her staff.

“They’re all good people,” she said. “I’m just glad I got to work with them in the time I did.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.