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In eight years as mayor, Pam Iorio changed the culture of Tampa's bureaucracy

The meeting did not go well. Pam Iorio, just weeks after taking over as mayor in April 2003, wanted an update on plans for Tampa's new arts museum. She was looking for assurances that the $30 million in city money that her predecessor, Dick Greco, pledged to the project would be money well spent.

But Iorio walked away from a session with top museum officials with the very opposite impression. The museum was short millions of dollars in its fundraising for a new $76 million, cantilevered facility along downtown's Ashley Drive. Its attendance estimates were suspect. It had no solid business plan. And there was no financial cushion protecting the city were the museum to go bust.

Publicly, at least, Iorio gave the museum board time to make the numbers work. But she and her top adviser, Fran Davin, climbed into Iorio's station wagon for the ride back to City Hall convinced that the time had come to think about Plan B — and even Plan C.

"She debated whether to pull the plug right then," recalled Davin, a former Hillsborough County commissioner. "But she thought that would not be fair. The board had raised so much money. And the project was so far down the road. Her focus became: Can this thing be righted?"

The plan was not righted; Iorio killed it two years later after last-minute financing fell through. But in the intervening months, she worked to build a consensus on a cheaper, more sustainable facility. Unlike Greco, she never occupied herself with aesthetics about architectural design. Her concern was that the museum be functional and affordable. And she wanted it built downtown to anchor a larger arts district that took in the riverfront.

The new museum opened last year at half the original price. While smaller, it already has attracted world-class exhibits of Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas. And outside the entrance, the city built a waterfront park with the money it saved.

The museum was an early test of Iorio's priorities and abilities as a leader. She campaigned on a promise to make Tampa "a city of the arts." But there was a line for her between culture and vanity, at least where public dollars were involved. And Iorio felt caught between a competing desire to make good on her predecessor's commitment and a resolve not to allow her own agenda to be blown off course. She regrets the ill will the standoff caused and the time and political capital she expended so early in her term. "Having said that," Iorio said in a recent interview, "it all worked out for the best. We ended up with a better product because we got this beautiful park."

The episode captures Iorio's most enduring legacy. Mayors typically are measured by the bricks and mortar they leave behind. Iorio has plenty of that. She completed the $103 million widening of 40th Street — the commercial corridor of Tampa's black community. She oversaw more than $1 billion in privately funded construction downtown. And Iorio nearly completed the decades-long effort to connect the entire downtown riverfront with a pedestrian trail. But her biggest impact was in raising the professionalism of City Hall. She brought into her administration accomplished leaders from both government and business who took a sharper approach to policy decisions. That change served taxpayers well in Iorio's first term when she balked at the museum's extravagance. And it came to be a saving grace in her second term when the economy collapsed.

A whole-grain agenda

Iorio didn't change the city's bureaucratic culture by accident. She spent her first two years in office replacing nearly every department head who served under Greco, reaching out far beyond the local talent pool that historically had been the casting pond for City Hall. Iorio hired a budget director from William R. Hough & Co., the municipal bond pioneer. Her public works director commanded the Navy Seabees at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her first city attorney, Fred Karl, was a state senator and justice of the Florida Supreme Court. The new mayor encouraged an open, internal debate, but when she made a decision, she expected her staff to get with the program. And they appeared in public in jackets and ties.

Iorio leaves office having achieved all the major goals she laid out in 2003. She more than quadrupled spending on the neighborhoods, to $10 million annually, replacing 550 miles of roadway, 55 miles of sidewalks and 71,000 signs throughout the city. She created tax incentives to develop poorer neighborhoods. New offices moved to older parts of town and the city used grants and public-private partnerships to lay the groundwork for more than $1 billion in housing, retail and commercial activity. Iorio brought life downtown, opening museums, parks and boat docks and attracting thousands of new condos.

Her administration also spent heavily to replace the city's aging water and sewer pipes, miles of which date back 100 years. The city raised fees and created a new stormwater tax to accelerate the replacement of dated water lines that leaked underground and drainage systems so overloaded they routinely flooded low-lying South Tampa with every summer rain. Iorio saw the investment as a quality-of-life issue and a necessity for Tampa to grow and attract new industries.

The recession changed her game plan dramatically. Between 2007 and last year, Tampa lost $7 billion off the tax roll. Downtown alone lost nearly one-quarter of its value. Iorio had saved tens of millions of dollars by refinancing the city's debt, but the drop in tax revenues forced the city to lay off hundreds of workers and cut tens of millions of dollars from the budget. She merged some operations to cut overhead costs. Yet Iorio also faced a crisis partly of her own making. She boosted retirement benefits, and when the pension funds took losses in the stock market slump, the city's pension obligations spiked. Iorio floated a proposal to move new employees away from a fixed-pension and into city-subsidized savings accounts, but the idea went nowhere.

The recession also stalled her plans to redevelop the older neighborhood of Tampa Heights north of downtown and a huge tract of property where a public housing project once stood at the corner where downtown and the channel district meet Ybor City. Iorio also failed in her campaign to convince Hillsborough County voters last year to adopt a sales tax to pay for light rail and other transportation improvements. Still, her advocacy broke the ice on rail, and the effort brought a new sense of unity between local government and the business sector across the region. Iorio's push for the high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando also raised the bay area's profile.

Iorio is confident that rail and redevelopment opportunities will return and she is proud in the meantime to have delivered on the basics. Despite the drop in revenue, she socked $150 million into reserves, three times what she inherited in 2003. The city has a plan to stay operational in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster — for the first time ever. Residents can contact police, code enforcement and other offices by e-mail, and the responses are tracked to ensure the public is taken seriously. In parks, oil drums that served as trash containers were replaced with garbage cans. "Cities are the core of our country," Iorio said. "People aren't moving to farms. That's why investment in cities is so important."

Setting an ethical tone

Iorio didn't bring only a new set of priorities. She worked deliberately to set a strikingly different ethical tone, and to make the mayor's office more visible and accessible. Within her first year, Iorio instituted a new ethics code and extended health benefits to the unmarried, domestic and same-sex partners of city workers. She rebuilt the federal government's confidence in the city's housing program after a bribery scandal sent two officials from the previous administration to prison. When a powerful union figure at the Fire Department was caught arranging a nude photo shoot of two strippers at a station house, Iorio fired him. She also forced out the director of the city-owned zoo after auditors found he had taken zoo property to his private, for-profit animal park.

Iorio ditched the bodyguard and the Lincoln Continental. She walked downtown to regular places for lunch. Though she has spent most of her adulthood in public life, first as a Hillsborough commissioner and then as the county's elections supervisor, Iorio was surprised by how she lost any sense of privacy. Whether shopping on weekends at the Publix off Neptune, or strolling through Al Lopez Park on Saturdays in her "Walk with the Mayor," she was struck at how meaningful it was for people to have a moment of her time. And she never realized before how invested the public was in having a mayor succeed. "They look at you and the tone you set, and it's very important for the government not to have scandal, that you not let them down."

These changes in style burnished Iorio's reputation as a straight shooter. She was a strong manager who despite good relations with the press never wanted to see any surprises in the newspaper. Despite the time she spent in hiring a staff, virtually her entire senior circle stayed throughout both terms. And that continuity brought results. The police managed to reduced crime by 61 percent under Iorio in part because Chief Jane Castor and her predecessor, Steve Hogue, saw eye-to-eye on a strategy for proactive policing.

The maturity of her organization showed across the board. Iorio dealt with blight and nuisance problems by coordinating teams of police, code enforcement and animal control officers. When revenues nose-dived after the recession hit, she reduced rather than cut entirely funding to nonprofits, arguing that charities had to survive if government was going to hand them a larger role in delivering social services.

She also grew to appreciate how she could use the symbolic power of her office to cast public attention on issues she cared deeply about. Iorio saw children's, literacy and civic causes as vital for nurturing public engagement and an informed, enlightened democracy. Kids who paraded through her office were taken to a conference room and invited to take a book from shelves teeming with children's titles. She started a Youth Corps of young ambassadors to help teens build self-confidence and civic pride. Iorio ventured to schools, festivals and neighborhoods that historically had been off a mayor's radar. "There's a certain segment in our society that always sees the mayor," she said. "I wondered: How can you go and motivate the others."

At 51, Iorio leaves office younger than any of the five candidates who sought to succeed her. And she is hugely popular. A recent Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll put her approval rating at 87 percent. But she has no regrets about term limits. She even credits them for allowing her to serve.

"It's kind of nice, anyway, that you're leaving when they still want you around," she joked.

John Hill is a member of the Times editorial board.

In eight years as mayor, Pam Iorio changed the culture of Tampa's bureaucracy 04/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 5:26pm]

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