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NORMAN HICKEY: The closing of a chapter

Norman Hickey is deep in conversation when there is a knock at his office door.

It's somebody from the Police Department. He's looking for a spare room. He's got a couple of nervous undercover detectives who don't want their covers blown while waiting at City Hall to testify before a nuisance abatement board.

Half apologetically, he says the police had always used this room before it was converted to an office.

Hickey springs out of his chair before the man from the Police Department is finished talking. No problem, Hickey insists.

"We can move to another place," he says reassuringly. "We'll find a place."

No matter that this conference-room- turned-office is the second desk to which Hickey has been unceremoniously shuffled since voters changed the form of government in March and eliminated his city manager job.

No matter that he threw himself on a political hand grenade for the civic good during the police chief controversy last year, only to be cast aside.

No matter that the whole situation in St. Petersburg has hurt his feelings, at least a little bit.

Career public servant Norman Wilbur Hickey left his office that day just as he's leaving the city at the end of this month. Without regrets or fuss. Without a need to wear his ego on the sleeve of his rumpled white cotton shirt.

"We all have these images that we're going to go out in a blaze of glory," he says. "It is not going to happen in this day and age. And I've accepted that."

When Hickey took the $100,000-a-year job as St. Petersburg city manager a year ago, he walked into a city that had come to mistrust its leaders. Monuments and milestones of that erosion of faith abound: The vacant $138-million Florida Suncoast Dome. The embarrassing grand jury denouncement of city government in 1991. The forced resignation of the last two city managers in the face of scandal.

It was a city of residents fighting among themselves over the prescription for its civic ills. Then came the flash point for these and other long-simmering frustrations: the Curtsinger controversy.

When an acting city manager fired Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger for alleged racial insensitivity and other transgressions, it was much more than the termination of a popular police chief. It became a boxing ring for wide-ranging debate. The firing focused a spotlight on accountability of the city's top administrators, on St. Petersburg's racial mores, and on questions of how pure a democracy was appropriate to govern a city of 239,000 people.

It was a city on the brink.

Enter Hickey, an eclectic 64-year-old public servant. A high school dropout turned Ivy League graduate. A bespectacled, jovial man whose seemingly bumbling demeanor concealed the core of a former U.S. Marine.

He saw St. Petersburg as a challenge. Another candidate for the city manager job withdrew his application after getting a taste of the bitter brew that had become St. Petersburg politics. Not Hickey.

Hickey is a man moved to action by crisis and has the resume to show it. He served a stint in Vietnam. As county manager in the early '80s, he was an FBI informant during an era of public corruption in Hillsborough County. And he managed San Diego County, which lost its "County in Chaos" nickname by the time he left.

He bought into St. Petersburg for a year. He steadied the city as it fought to redefine itself. And when the dust settled, he was out of a job.

"It's kind of like the police officer who gets in the middle of a domestic dispute and ends up getting the worst of it," said City Council member Connie Kone. "Maybe by the time he got to it, there was just too much underlying emotion."

Shaping of a public servant

This is NOT the resume Hickey sends out when applying for a job.

1935-1939: Sewer pipe rat chaser. Railroad track coal picker. Rags, junk and newspaper collector.

1945-1949: Machine gunner. Hand grenade thrower. Body guard.

1967-1970: U.S. adviser during Tet offensive. Refugee director. Liaison to Buddhist monks.

Although it isn't his "official" resume, the sum of experiences in the six-page list he half-jokingly compiled several years ago speaks volumes about the fabric of the man.

Spend any amount of time with Hickey and it becomes apparent that two periods of his life particularly influenced the molding of this public servant: his childhood during the Great Depression and his three years in Vietnam.

Hickey grew up in Upper Darby, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, and took an assortment of odd jobs to help his parents put food on the table. He learned from his father to honor and help people no matter what their circumstances.

"In those days, everybody shared," Hickey says. "Somebody would have electricity and you would run a line out to those who didn't. My parents would say, "Take this bucket of coal to such and such.' It was a complete sharing."

Those difficult Depression years were the underpinning of his frequent trips five decades later to a San Diego Park to offer food to homeless people, and at least part of the reason he took several refugee Vietnamese families into his home in Titusville after returning from Southeast Asia.

Both Hickey's father and grandfather were public servants. His grandfather was police commissioner and his father, trained as an engineer, served in a variety of capacities. From them he says he acquired a management philosophy of we're-all-in-this-together.

"There were always people at the house asking my father for some kind of assistance through the government," Hickey says. "All kinds of people. All kinds of ethnic backgrounds."

Hickey dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He became a bodyguard for an admiral, who urged the young man to go back to school after getting out of the service. Hickey took the admiral's advice and went after an education with a vengeance. In six years, he got high school, bachelor's and master's degrees, the latter from University of Pennsylvania.

He then embarked upon a career in city management interspersed with stints overseas for the U.S. State Department in Colombia and Vietnam. It was in Cam Ranh City, Vietnam, in the late 1960s that he absorbed some of the wisdom he would later apply to the Curtsinger crisis.

His mission was to advise the South Vietnamese government, help provide for refugees and improve education and public services. And in that very different part of the world, Hickey said he came to see that despite people's political differences, beyond language and cultural barriers, there existed a universal set of hopes and dreams.

"You find that people are basically the same. They all want security. They all want a good job. They all want to provide for their families. They all want a good education for their children."

It was there also that he met Vinh Tran, a man Hickey later would consider family. Tran was a 28-year-old captain in the South Vietnamese army who had been wounded in the battlefield. He was sent to Cam Ranh to recover and conduct intelligence operations. Tran reported to the mayor of Cam Ranh, and Hickey was the U.S. liaison to the mayor. The two became fast friends. Hickey credits Tran with twice saving his life, once by catching a man putting plastic explosives under Hickey's car seat, and another time by intercepting a note about a plan to kill Hickey.

"He was a quiet, protective covenant when I was in trouble," Hickey said.

Tran, a computer programer who now lives in San Diego, said Hickey was "the one who tried to understand both sides."

When the South Vietnamese government fell, Hickey got a call from Tran and his family. They needed a sponsor to enter the United States, and Hickey and his wife, Dolores, took them in. Today, the Hickeys and the Trans consider themselves one, large extended family.

Hickey has a propensity to forge deep, lifelong friendships, and then sometimes call upon those friends to fill government jobs. In San Diego, he recruited a friend from his Penn State University football days to help with social services: football great Rosie Grier. When he came to St. Petersburg, he hired Bob Gilder, a longtime activist friend from Tampa to help him relate to the city's minority residents.

The practice has earned him both kudos and criticism. Pick Talley, a former Hillsborough County employee who worked for Hickey before successfully running for the Hillsborough County Commission, said last year that he did not like Hickey's hiring practices.

Talley, now director of the Pinellas County water system, said that Hickey chose to hire people he knew, rather than conducting broad searches for top administrators. And that's something that bothered Talley.

Hickey explains: "I've been around forever, and what happens is you begin to recognize and remember the outstanding qualities of different people. In Hillsborough County, it was hard to get quality people to come there without a personal contact."

But for every critic of Hickey's, there are seemingly a dozen admirers.

City Council member Leslie Curran said Hickey has been invaluable to the city during its year of crisis. "I don't think he got the recognition or respect for the job he's done for us while he was here."

Walter A. Scheiber, former president of the International City/County Management Association, attended University of Pennsylvania with Hickey 40 years ago and has kept up with his career ever since.

Scheiber, a longtime city manager of Rockville, Md., before retiring, called Hickey one of the "icons" of city management.

Scheiber, whose son David is entertainment editor for the St. Petersburg Times, said that most city managers would consider the Curtsinger situation a no-win proposition that was best avoided. That Hickey took the job regardless of the difficulty is a measure of the man, said Scheiber, who lives in Bethesda, Md.

"Given the choice between his career and his ideals, he'll go with his ideals every time," Scheiber said.

Arrival in a turbulent place

The St. Petersburg that Hickey found 13 months ago was a turbulent place.

The police chief had been fired. There were accusations that the city's top black administrators had conspired to get rid of the chief. A citywide referendum was set to bring back Curtsinger as chief. And predictions of election violence circulated through the city.

The clock was ticking.

Hickey's mission was to find a piece of middle ground big enough for everybody in the Curtsinger controversy to stand on. He had a month to do it.

He dove into the task with a kind of frenetic compulsion that defines Hickey, working 14-hour days plus weekends, quaffing a dozen cups of coffee a day.

With just hours left to call off the referendum, Hickey reached a compromise with Curtsinger: The former chief would get a cash settlement worth up to $585,000 and a job in city management outside the Police Department, and the election was off.

At the time, the settlement seemed to please no one but Curtsinger. His attorney commended Hickey for his "good faith." Now, a year later, lawyer Louis Kwall questions Hickey's candor in the negotiations.

"I can just say that I was disappointed in what came afterward because we had been led to believe there would be a different course of action by the city," said Kwall, of Clearwater. "There weren't any promises made. I want to make that clear."

Kwall declined to elaborate, but city administrators say the "course of action" that Curtsinger wanted was the dismissal of two of the city's top black officials. City officials, including Hickey, said that was never part of the agreement. Curtsinger, reached at his home last week, declined to comment on any facet of Hickey's handling of his situation.

When asked if the understanding could have been born of Hickey's mumbling, scatter-shot manner of speaking, Kwall said: "You mean Mr. Malaprop? No. It was not a question of his mumbling or bumbling. I understood exactly what he said as did everybody else."

Another player in the drama of last year also has reversed his opinion of Hickey's handling of the situation. At first, Bishop John Copeland, president of a group of influential black ministers, called the settlement a betrayal.

"At the time, we really did feel that here was a white person as a part of a society or system who was going to look after another white person regardless," Copeland said. "I don't think it was really what he was trying to do."

Today, Copeland has nothing but reverent words for Hickey.

"I think there's something that's inside of him that goes beyond running a government. He's got integrity and values. There's something inside him telling him to do what's right.

"I always say there are only two types of people in the world and that's good folks and bad folks. He's one of those people who have chosen to do right. I believe I would just want to live in any city where he was the man who made decisions."

Looking back, Hickey said there's nothing he would do differently, even though Curtsinger didn't assume a low profile after the settlement, as Hickey had hoped. At the time of the referendum, Hickey was getting insistent predictions of violence. He had no choice but to find a way to call off the referendum, he said.

"All the information indicated that it was going to be a very difficult time," Hickey said. "The rumblings we heard were crazy _ that people were going to bomb the Dome.

"There was going to be great civil unrest," Hickey said. "So, you make a judgment call."

Hickey's short tenure at the city was consumed by the Curtsinger situation: There was the settlement and the ex-chief's stint as port and airport director. Then Curtsinger turned politician, and controversy continued to churn the city during his unsuccessful run for mayor.

Hickey considers his handling of the Curtsinger conflict the defining event of his tenure in St. Petersburg.

"Hopefully I had more than a little part in calming the community down so it could get ready for elections."

The vote that left him unemployed

The small, airless room in the basement of City Hall was thick with election night tension.

Hickey and his wife were among a small group of top city officials who waited _ out of public sight _ for word on the March 23 election. Every few minutes, the fax machine would hum, and another precinct total would arrive from the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Hickey and his wife scanned each sheet.

The item that drew their attention was proposed Charter Amendment No. 5: Should the city elect its top administrator by popular vote, or have the council appoint that person?

In the end, voters eliminated Hickey's job when they chose to elect a mayor to run city government. And by a narrow margin, they chose David Fischer to fill the job over Curtsinger.

Hickey takes no offense at the vote that left him unemployed. He does not believe it was a referendum on his performance. Rather, he says voters were wrestling with deep-seated feelings over the course of city government and actions of previous city managers.

"There was some underlying past history here that was on a personal basis rather than the structure," he said.

Hickey sees himself as a casualty of that struggle.

"The normal, human reaction is "What did I do wrong?' You start searching, if you're honest. You ask "What could I have done differently?' But I feel okay. And that's good. It wasn't something that was malicious or something else."

Almost immediately, Hickey was taking down the dozens of plaques that hung on his office walls. Fischer wanted his office. Hickey moved not once, but twice after the election. Ultimately, he ended up in a conference room just off council chambers. A move, he said, that was made to accommodate clerical staff.

Within days of the election, Hickey said there were two other instances besides the office shuffling that signified his loss of stature within the organization: Newly elected Mayor Fischer brought his campaign manager and a city staffer with him _ and left Hickey home _ when calling upon Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. And the mayor stated publicly that there would be no high-level, chief administrative officer in the organization.

"My power was gone with those three quick actions," he said. "I got several calls from friends saying "Boy, you're really out. The mayor's out there in Tampa with somebody who's not in government and (Intergovernmental Relations Director) Herb Polson. They really threw you out.' "

Fischer's version of the transition of power and the reasons for Hickey's departure are a bit different. He starts by praising Hickey.

"I think he was a perfect manager to have at that time," Fischer said. "He was brilliant as a crisis manager. He was invaluable for that era."

Why then, would Fischer not attempt to keep him on staff?

Right after the election, the mayor said he would not need a $100,000 chief administrative officer. Last week, he reversed his position, saying he would likely add that position to the organization, but that Hickey was not being considered.

Why?

Fischer said that Hickey wants to leave.

"I think his mind was pretty much made up," Fischer said.

Fischer's version of the office maneuvering also is shaded differently than Hickey's.

"During the campaign, we would meet quite often. At one point there I kiddingly said, "Your office looks like a good fit.' I never dreamed at that moment I would be leaving the other end of the hall."

The day after the election, Fischer said he was resting at home when he got a call: Hickey was packing his things and moving out of the office. Fischer said he was surprised and immediately went to City Hall to talk to Hickey and ask him why he was moving.

"But after I came down here, I realized it was a necessary step," Fischer said.

After that, Fischer said the office staff took it upon themselves to shuffle around, pushing Hickey to a third office _ the converted conference room. Fischer is adamant that no slight was meant by the moves.

Since the election, Hickey has been working on Fischer's plan to reorganize city management. And he still occasionally goes to E-Team meetings _ city shorthand for weekly executive team meetings of top city staff. But for the most part he has faded into the background. And not everyone at City Hall is happy about that.

"It's like having a .400 hitter in your dugout and not letting him go to bat," said City Council chairman Robert Stewart.

In these waning weeks of his tenure, Hickey said he is trying to adjust.

"My job in some ways is to also move backwards and stay out of his way and still be available."

And he said he is trying to keep a sense of humor about the situation.

"That's my next office," Hickey said, grinning over his shoulder as he closed a closet door. "You've got to keep these thing in perspective and laugh about them."

On the road again

It's moving time. Again.

The 2,000-square-foot condominium the Hickeys had leased on the 27th floor of the Bayfront Tower is filled with boxes. Slowly but surely they're packing up possessions collected during their lives together.

It's a familiar experience, but none the less difficult.

Hickey counted once. He and his wife have moved 14 times during their 37-year marriage. And each time, they hauled with them the same French Provincial living room and dining room set and paintings collected from around the world.

"It's a trauma," said Dolores Hickey.

It takes about a year to stop missing the friends you just left and get involved in your new community, she said.

Their stay in St. Petersburg means they're leaving a place they hadn't quite the time to get to know.

Reflecting on this city, Hickey said it lacks a closeness. He uses this barometer: During his year here, very few people save his bosses on the City Council ever asked him to their house for dinner. There's something intimate about breaking bread with someone at their home, and he never seemed to be able to reach that point.

"I think it speaks of a culture. I think it speaks to something I'm not so sure of _ a separation," he said.

As he leaves St. Petersburg, he takes with him 31 years of experience in city and county management, and several job possibilities: a couple of city management jobs, teaching offers, overseas consulting or writing a book.

His severance package of $39,000 will help tide him over. His one-year contract with the city provides for four months of severance pay and reimbursement for unused vacation pay.

But for now, he will move to Daytona Beach to a house he had built 30 years ago for his wife. They've moved all their belongings there and don't plan to move again. If Hickey, now 65, gets a job that takes them away from Daytona, they will pack only suitcases and rent a furnished place.

He said he's neither disappointed nor angry about how his experience here has shaken out.

"You've got to look at one thing. I only signed up for a year and it worked out almost to the day."

Alicia Caldwell is a staff writer for the Times.

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