Money Pit, cont.

Burl Gilyard
City Pages - Cover Story - Vol 21, Issue 1016

May 24, 2000

In many ways, the dust-up about the meetings was typical of Miller's tenure. Former city council member Steve Minn calls Miller "one of the best politicians at city hall"; he also compares the NRP director to Huey Long, the populist, controversial Louisiana governor and U.S. Senator of the Twenties and Thirties whose slogan was "Every Man a King." "Every neighborhood was a king with Bob," Minn says. (Miller laughs: "I would have never thought of that one.")

Over the years, Minn adds, Miller has cultivated his own relationships with neighborhood groups, effectively cutting the politicians out of the deal. "NRP was set up with way too much autonomy for Bob," says Minn. "He set it up so that it was absolutely impossible for the council member to question their own neighborhoods."

Minn says he liked some things about the program--like the low-interest fix-up loans for homeowners--but suspects that its goals were too hazily defined. "We just weren't very careful with the money," he maintains. "We sort of told folks, 'Dream your biggest dream and we'll find a way to pay for it.' The concept was really quite brilliant--I just think the rules were too loose."

Current council member Lisa McDonald, who served on the policy board for a few years after being elected to her Tenth Ward seat in '93, dubs Miller "crazy like a fox." Explains McDonald: "I admire him, but he makes me really mad sometimes. I think he really knows how to work the system. I think he's playing both ends against the middle [so] it's really unclear as to who he's working for."

"The neighborhoods feel like they're fighting against the city": NRP Policy Board member Gretchen Nicholls


Like Minn, McDonald says Miller has keen political instincts. She says she has learned not to be deceived by his folksy exterior: "Yes, he is that guy, but he's very astute underneath that. You can't let that demeanor blind you to the fact that he's very sharp.

"He probably knows at any given time not to make anybody too mad or too happy," McDonald goes on. "He cut his teeth at the county, and he has a political background. He's got his facts and figures lined up. He's organized. He really knows his program back and forth."

Perhaps because of Miller's political savvy, even those who have clashed with him rarely couch their disagreement in anything but the politest terms. Cherryhomes will say only that "we aren't always going to agree"; she and Miller, she adds, have "a good working relationship and a good ability to work through issues."

Some of Miller's overseers on the NRP Policy Board suggest that he sometimes acts like the leader of a breakaway republic. "One of the frustrating things of his style is he pits people against each other," says Gretchen Nicholls, a board member who also serves as executive director of the Center for Neighborhoods. "I think the neighborhoods feel like they're fighting against the city, and unfortunately I don't think that helps us move forward constructively....We need to think of ourselves more as partners, rather than antagonists. I don't think Bob sees himself as a partner."

Counters Miller: "I don't really see myself as pitting the neighborhoods against the city." If politicians argue that the program's agenda should be in line with the city's, he notes, "I could argue that the city's goals should be more in line with the neighborhoods' goals."


Despite the grumbling about what Miller has or hasn't done, he and the policy board seem irrevocably wedded to each other. Former and current board members say that there has never been any serious move afoot to oust Miller. "They all like to carp a lot, but nobody wants to pull the string," says McDonald. Behind the scenes, some whisper, Cherryhomes once tested the waters for a bid to orchestrate his ouster; Cherryhomes professes that she has never been a part of any such effort.

"He has certain critics out there," says current policy board chair Stenglein, "but if you think of the kind of tightrope he's walking, he does a very, very effective job." He jokingly adds, "I just wish he would wear a tie."

Miller, whose annual salary is about $90,000, is reviewed annually by the personnel committee of the policy board. According to his most recent evaluation, during the 12-month period ending June 30, 1999 he met the bulk of the objectives outlined for him by the policy board. On a scale from 1 ("unsatisfactory") to 5 ("superior"), Miller got an overall rating of 3.125, a shade above "meets expectations." That was up from 2.94 from the year before.

The review committee also urged Miller to "do a better job reaching out to the communities of color" ("That's one I don't disagree with," Miller says); to "provide active leadership in aligning NRP activities with city goals and objectives"; and to "make a more concerted effort to provide information that is consistent, neutral, and unbiased."

"It's kind of a way to say, 'Get back in line,'" says Miller. "[The review] is a way people can keep me in check. I do push the envelope a lot. I believe that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm not the easiest person to work with in the world."

Miller's style has sometimes gotten him into trouble. He confirms that a few years ago he underwent "sensitivity training" for a remark he made to a co-worker. A staffer he valued was talking about leaving the program, he recalls. "I said, 'Geez, if you leave I'm going to break both your legs,' and she took it to be a serious threat. I shouldn't have said it."

Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who chairs the personnel committee, says the rating is not influenced by politics. "We're not measuring him on any of the intrigue," she insists. "Bob's reviews have always been good. For the most part he is getting what I would call an average rating." She adds that the policy board unanimously approved his last review.

And no wonder, says former policy board member Ann Berget: It would be hard to find another "masochist" to run the program. Miller keeps an intense, meeting-riddled, arguably workaholic schedule. He returns one phone call regarding this story at close to midnight, after getting out of a neighborhood meeting. Another night he calls at 7:30 p.m., this time between meetings.

In addition to the board's evaluations, Miller currently faces another assessment: In December 1997, the policy board commissioned a study of the NRP from the San Francisco-based consulting firm Teamworks. The report--whose price tag now stands at close to $278,000, paid for by the NRP as well as various government agencies and foundations--is expected to be released in June. A draft of the report has been circulating around city hall; City Coordinator Kathy O'Brien says that "it's not going to be a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval or an indictment." Offers Miller: "I have not been allowed to see it...I normally expect to get beaten up. My hope is that it will be fair."

Whatever the bottom line of the Teamworks study, Miller says disagreements between him and the policymakers have more to do with the structure of the program than with him personally. "The first three or four years, it was like a war," he recalls. "There wasn't a lot of collaboration between the government agencies and the neighborhoods. It was seen as an us-versus-them situation." Many in government, he adds, "were antagonistic to the program from the very beginning."

Miller says he survived the war by carefully picking his battles. "I can appear to be off the wall," he allows. "[But] there aren't a lot of things that I do that aren't calculated to some extent."


On February 8 the battle laid out way back at the Northeast Armory came to a head--after a fashion. The occasion was the official meeting to discuss Phase II, the one sponsored by the city council and the policy board. The NRP Phase II Steering Committee had proposed five options for the program. Four of them called for a substantial share of the money--up to 60 percent--to be set aside for "citywide priorities," chiefly affordable housing.

Many neighborhood activists present at the meeting bristled at the idea of any city mandates. By the end of the night, one of them had conducted an admittedly unscientific straw poll. Of 146 people who cast ballots, 50.7 percent favored keeping the status quo.

Three weeks later, at the February 28 meeting of the policy board, the five options had been replaced by two new alternatives, neither of which calls for anything close to a 60 percent allocation. One called for setting aside 18 percent--or $27 million--of the program's remaining $150 million for city hall priorities, including affordable housing. The second suggested earmarking a mere $10 million to $12 million for an affordable-housing fund. On Monday, May 22, after a long meeting of parliamentary wrangling, another compromise emerged, setting aside $20 million over four years--$16 million for affordable housing and $4 million for commercial corridors. The policy board is scheduled to take public comments on the matter through June and cast a final vote in July.

What had happened? The plaid-shirt general, it turns out, had swung into action. Behind the scenes, Miller had hunkered down with MCDA executive director Steve Cramer to hammer out deals that offered something to both sides. Miller says he knew that "the votes weren't there" for leaving full control with the neighborhoods, but he wanted to steer away from alternatives that "left the neighborhoods with nothing."

Miller is too politic to claim victory before the final vote, or to suggest that he, little ol' Bob, could have done anything as canny as outmaneuver his political adversaries. Nah, he's just a guy doing what he can to get by in this crazy world. "I don't think its outflanking them," he claims. "I think it's doing what I was asked to do by the community."

If the NRP's history is any guide, Phase II won't unfold exactly as observers think it will--and no matter what happens, there will be plenty of second-guessing to go around. Then, in another eight years or so, it seems safe to expect a battle about finding a new source of cash to carry the program beyond its 2009 sunset date. Ask Miller what he thinks should happen then, and he just flashes that crazy-like-a-fox, Cheshire grin: "I don't want to play every card I have."

Next page: Where Has All the Money Gone?


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