The key is finding a balance.
That's the strategy Ruffin Hall, Raleigh's good-humored city manager, says he's sought to apply to the thorniest issues he's faced since starting in November 2013. And he's faced many of those issues, especially downtown.
"Raleigh is growing and evolving from a big small town to a smaller big city," Hall says, sitting at a polished wooden table in a conference room inside the city's municipal building on a warm late-February afternoon. He's wearing a brown suit with a red tie and speaks matter-of-factly. "There are plenty of cities across the country that would love to be dealing with the issues that we are currently facing. For us, the question is, how do we balance the interests of an exciting, active, engaging downtown so that everyone can enjoy that experience?"
In the spring of 2013, the city council voted 6–2 to fire Hall's predecessor, Russell Allen, who had served in that post for twelve years, over a parking scandal and communications issues.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said at the time that Raleigh needed "to go in a different direction"—meaning, she told the INDY recently, that the city needed someone who was able to get ahead of growth and who had a good understanding of how state government works. Hall, then Charlotte's assistant city manager, seemed a good fit. His expertise in transit issues was a key selling point.
McFarlane praises Hall as a "visionary," a talented communicator, and a team builder. In contrast, Allen had been unable to bridge the communications gap between the city's staff and the council, she says.
But Allen—who still lives in Raleigh and declined to comment for this story—nonetheless left big shoes to fill. He guided the city through its early downtown revitalization and helped it remain prosperous during the Great Recession. Staff members adored him, too; after his departure, department heads left en masse, with sixteen out of about fifty retiring or taking new positions.
His termination was, to say the least, contentious. As one former city staffer puts it, "Raleigh was a top-notch, award-winning team, triple-A bond rated, at the top of every best-of list you can think of. It was one of the best-run city governments in the country. Why fire the coach?"
And since Hall took over, his tenure hasn't always been smooth sailing.
Last summer, disgruntled residents showed up by the hundreds to two public hearings on the city's unified development ordinance, which suddenly and dramatically overhauled zoning for a third of properties in the city; the city seemed totally unprepared to field their concerns.
Many people felt that the city's manner of enforcing new outdoor dining regulations—police and fire department officers raiding bars and restaurants during business hours—was poorly handled,as well. Indeed, after nearly a year of debate, the city still has yet to finalize its new sidewalk dining rules.
Other big projects have lingered in the pipeline—Union Station and the Moore Square master plan, for example—and taken years to get off the ground.
Regardless, McFarlane says she's pleased with Hall's work in a turbulent era. "Change was coming fast and furious, and what Ruffin brought to the table was anticipating a lot of those growth issues," she says.
The boss is happy, but, to the average citizen, Hall is an almost impenetrable figure. He rarely speaks to residents or the media directly, relying instead on an extensively reconfigured public affairs department. Yet he's also the most powerful unelected person in city government. The council almost always acts on his recommendations, which means that what he and his staff do behind the scenes has a very real impact on where the city's headed.
And right now, critics say, on some of the biggest issues the city faces, especially transit and land use, Raleigh looks to be coasting rather than breaking new ground.