July 22, 2014

Elyria
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HER BEST PLANS: Brinda recounts successes, failures in first year

ELYRIA — It was called the Elyrians First Plan.

It first hit Elyria streets — well, actually it was posted to the website BrindaForMayor.com as a means of reaching Elyria residents — in February 2011, and it outlined how Holly Brinda, then a member of the school board, would improve Elyria if she were elected mayor.

Some ideas from the plan had been heard before.

In 2007, Brinda threw her hat in the Democratic primary race but was bested by incumbent Mayor Bill Grace in a race that had a margin of victory of just 533 votes.

But four years later, she dusted off her old message and revitalized it — adding and growing it tomore than 30 pages filled with goals and objectives.

It was clear from the beginning Brinda, a hometown girl who never strayed too far, had a certain direction for where Elyria — Lorain County’s second-largest city and the seat of county government — should go.

“Even now, I go back to that plan because that is what I told Elyrians I would do to craft a government that works for them,” she said Thursday.

On that day, Brinda, 55, is seated in her spacious third-floor City Hall office at 131 Court St. Her office overlooks the historical Ely Square. The walls and tops of cabinets have touches of home Brinda brought with her those first few days in office to give the place a more familial touch.

There are pictures of her four adult children — Matthew, Nicholas, Marielle and Rachel — a painted ceramic cat and framed sketches of Elyria landmarks.

In the corner, a wicker basket sits on the floor and is full of children’s toys, coloring books and small stuffed animals. They are gifts Brinda gives to young wedding guests when on the rare occasion she is asked to join two hopeful lovebirds in matrimony.

“I don’t want to be known as the mayor who does the weddings, but I have to admit it’s one of the fun aspects of my job,” she said.

Gathering info

Brinda takes a seat at a nearby table adorned with a small vase of simple white silk flowers and flips open a black binder that anyone who has seen her knows goes just about everywhere with her when she is on official city business.

It is full of documents and handwritten notes. The most recent  are an outline of her upcoming  State of the City address. Three notebook sized pages are covered with her loopy handwriting in blue ink.

“I have a lot of notes because I want to cover a lot of topics in my address,” she said. “I think we had a very good year.”

But before Brinda can rattle off a laundry list of accomplishments — and admit some disappointments — she shares something she learned within recent days. She never imagined being mayor would mean getting crash courses in drug paraphernalia, but it goes with the job when it’s something a resident wants her to fix.

She walks quickly to her desk and grabs two clear plastic tubes and a small piece of paper — a store receipt that showed both items were purchased for less than $3.

“Do you know what these are and how people use them?” she asked.

One is a small tube of roughly four inches in length and contains a tiny paper rose. The other is a little longer in length and is an ink pen, although not one of very sophisticated design.

“Well, the police chief says drug users take these apart and use the tubes to snort cocaine or smoke drugs,” she said. “A resident brought them to me because he wants me to stop stores from selling them. But I was told it’s legal for them to do this. That’s not what residents want to hear when they come to us, but it shows just what they expect from this office.”

Testing at the start

It goes without saying that Brinda came into the job with the odds somewhat stacked against her.

“Her election was more about voters’ efforts to get rid of Bill Grace then to put her in office,” said Elyria Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward.  “And I think she tested that right away by putting that charter measure on the ballot right away. It was as if she was saying, ‘trust us, trust the new administration.’ But as you can see, there is no really established trust relationship because voters still said no.”

The charter amendment was a request to overturn a previous charter provision that limits the city to seeking to tax increases only in general elections. Craig was a big proponent when it originally and successfully appeared on the ballot.

It was not just personal politics.

The financial picture of Elyria, Lorain County and actually all of Ohio was much better in January 2012 than it was just two years ago, but that swing back toward the positive was not as sweeping as many had hoped.

Job loss, declining median household income and lackluster efforts to spur economic development still plague the city and have left residents with a feeling of cautious optimism about the future.

“I’m waiting to see just what kind of a job Holly Brinda is going to do with a city that is in its death throes,” Elyria resident John A. Thompson Jr. articulated Nov. 20, 2011, in a letter to the editor published just weeks after Brinda’s major victory at the polls. “I wish you well in your endeavors, and congratulate you on your victory. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll take a wait-and-see posture before giving any more praise.”

Looking back on those first weeks after winning, Brinda said she knew change would not come easy.

“I’ve always had this little clock ticking in my head,” she said. “I really appreciate the position people have placed me in, and I don’t take any second for granted, but I know I don’t have enough time to do everything. I have to be strategic in my decisions about how I spend my time.”

Staff complements

This takes Brinda back to her plan.

She is now trying to determine just how well she did in fulfilling the promises laid out in the 34-page document. Brinda said if she had to honestly grade her first year in office, she would confidently give herself an “A-”.

“The best part is, we are really working hard to let people know we have the will, skill and ability to work together, solve problems, manage money and get things done,” Brinda said of her and her administration that includes Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka and Assistant Safety Service Director Dan Jaykel, a former Elyria police captain.

It was the hiring of Siwierka, a former at-large City Council member with years of experience with the city from her work with former Mayor Michael B. Keys, that was one of her best moves of the year, Craig said.

“That was an excellent hire in terms of the knowledge and expertise in city operations Mary has and her ability to empower department heads so they can take control of their departments,” Craig said.

Siwierka, who was once thought to have her own aspirations of being mayor, seemed to be a surprising choice for in the beginning.

The collective thought was the two strong-willed women would not work well together, but Siwierka, a former Cleveland Clinic employee, said the opposite is true.

“I think that we complement each other really well in that we have different personalities and philosophies on how to get things done,” Siwierka said. “She is very big picture, blue sky, and let’s look at the whole thing. I am more get down to the nitty gritty; let’s look at the details of everything. I think you need both of those to be success.”

Moving the city forward has not been easy, Siwierka said. They came into a situation where department head meetings were rarely held and now they are conducted twice a month. It has given employees a platform to openly express how they think their departments should grow.

Wait and see

Craig, who is very vocal about what he thinks should happen on the third floor of City Hall to benefit residents, said 2012 was quiet, something he said was equal parts Brinda’s taking the time to work her plan and the fact that City Council did not pressure the new mayor too much.

“She had this grand master plan when she was running for mayor, and Council chose to sit back and wait to see how that plan would shape out,” he said. “I think, for the most part,

Council has given her a great deal of support in some of the things she has wanted to do. But I would not say we went easy on her.

“The big things remain communication and the flow of information, both of which can be easily remedied.”

Still, Craig said he is reserving judgment of the mayor that has had some successes and failures this first year.

“She has focused or made at least one of her focuses economic development and taken on the role herself as economic development director, which I like a lot,” he said. “I like the fact that she has tried to increase her availability to the general public with her Mayor’s Night In sessions.”

But he’s not ready to say she’s fiscally responsible.

“It might be too early to tell on that one,” he said. “There have been raises and new hires, which contradict some of the things she said she would do when she came into office. But it could also be because she is trying to reorganize departments so they run more efficiently. I’m just waiting to see.”

Money matters

From her initiative to have a state performance audit conducted to raising money for summer camps, Craig said it’s been a year of firsts. He wants to see more in 2013.

“I want to see an aggressive economic development approach, new jobs and new revenue,” he said. “Over the previous year, our income tax revenue only increased 2 percent in 2012, and I expected a much higher increase with this new administration that came in under a campaign of hope and change.”

“At the very least, I expected to see 8 or 10 percent. We have to get new jobs in here without giving away all our taxes in the process.”

Brinda, who has a social services background, said enticing new businesses is not an exact science. With the competitive environment of tax incentives, cities nowadays literally have to give away everything to convince a business to set up shop.

“We need to do more, but we can’t compete on that level until we learn how to position our assets in a way that is attractive to businesses and industries,” she said.

For Brinda that meant writing and getting Council to pass more tax incentive legislation, working extensively with Team Lorain County and Jobs Ohio, and maximizing the city’s membership in the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Initiative.

Focus on downtown

An increased focus on downtown also has been a part of her economic development efforts, which is something downtown business owners have wanted for years.

Iyad Almukdad, a 49-year-old immigrant from Syria, said he came to Elyria in 1998 to open a graphic sign business and has long wanted a mayor who he felt cared about the downtown area. Since getting elected, he said he and Brinda have developed a bit of a friendship because he feels like she is that person.

“She is working hard. We see that,” he said. “All the time she is talking to downtown businesses, asking us what we want her to do to improve the businesses downtown. We have her ear, and she understands that to bring back Elyria to be a good city as it used to be, we need a downtown people feel good about going to. You know, safe and feel welcome.”

While Brinda knows she can do a lot, this first year has more than taught her that she can’t do it alone.

“I don’t think any of my senior staff think they have all the answers,” she said. “It’s an adventure every day.”

Personally, this year has also been about a lot of growth for Brinda.

What was once a little apprehension has transformed into confidence that she made the right decision when she signed up to put it all on the line to be mayor.

“I finally feel like I’m the mayor,” she said with a smile. “It took a while, but I feel like I’m finally there. I’m comfortable in my skin in this role.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.