Outgoing Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell said Friday he is proud that he helped return some national and international attention to Dayton “for being different again” during his term, through innovations including the Welcome Dayton immigration policy.
“We were different at one time and everybody knew where Dayton, Ohio, was,” Leitzell said. “Before the 1970s everyone thought Dayton was a wonderful place, and then for some reason we let it slip. … If we can keep doing things that get us some attention, then that’s what we’ll be remembered for.”
Leitzell will pass the baton to incoming Mayor Nan Whaley at a 10 a.m. Monday ceremony at the Dayton Convention Center. Leitzell, Whaley and former judge A.J. Wagner ran in a primary for mayor in May 2013. Leitzell came in third in the race and Whaley went on to defeat Wagner in November’s election.
While boxing up his City Hall office and spending time with his 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, on Friday morning, Leitzell spoke at length about his four years as mayor.
He frequently mentioned two major efforts of his term that he said need to gain momentum — building a sense of do-it-yourself pride and community among city residents, and encouraging innovation by city staff.
“I think the time had come to take a shotgun approach — (the city should) try everything, and what works, works, and what doesn’t, no one will remember, because if we try 20 things, 15 will work … as long as we take calculated risks,” Leitzell said. “We’re noticing that the staff, as a result, are willing to take more risks because they know that the higher-ups will back them on it – OK, you screwed up. Go try something else.”
City Manager Tim Riordan, a longtime city employee who took the manager role a few months before Leitzell was elected in 2009, championed that innovative approach in 2011, with his “Partition Report,” suggesting dozens of new approaches for the city — some that worked, others that didn’t pan out.
Riordan complimented the mayor for his out-of-the-box thinking, supporting the city’s efforts to make money off its lime kiln and to boost local entrepreneurs.
“He’s a problem solver,” Riordan said. “If there’s an issue and you can’t figure something out, he’s always thinking, ‘How can I get at it in a different way?’ That’s just his personality. … That was a refreshing characteristic.”
Leitzell had a role in the Welcome Dayton plan — the city’s effort to attract immigrants and integrate them into the region. He was a key liaison with the growing Ahiska Turkish population in the city, and Riordan said Leitzell represented the city very well nationally, defending what Dayton was trying to do when national media questioned the plan. Riordan even ended up on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to discuss Welcome Dayton.
Based on the large number of unanimous City Commission votes, Leitzell agreed with colleagues Whaley, Joey Williams, Dean Lovelace and Matt Joseph more often than he differed with them.
But it was clear they often came from different perspectives. During last year’s campaign, Whaley said Dayton needed a more vocal, aggressive, full-time mayor. In recent weeks, as the commissioners said their public farewells, Lovelace said Leitzell “marches to his own drum,” and Whaley said “You definitely have a different way of thinking about things than I do.”
But all four thanked Leitzell for his service, with Williams calling him “very creative” and Joseph giving him credit for pushing the city to increase recycling, which eventually saved the city money.
Leitzell said he never felt like he had full support from the other four commissioners, especially on ideas that he brought forward himself.
Riordan said Leitzell struck a good balance between demanding the city become more business-friendly, and defending city staff when developers or businesses tried to blame the city for their own problems.
Looking to the future, Leitzell hopes city residents and businesses embrace the city’s “Dayton Is Yours” program, which calls for increased citizen involvement, pride in neighborhoods and civic projects. He said Dayton has lost its sense of community and needs to rebuild it.
Leitzell said regardless of who gets the credit, Dayton is a better place than it was four years ago.
In the past two years, Dayton has demolished more blighted houses than at any time in city history, has begun hiring police and firefighters again, has seen the crime rate decrease, has produced sound budgets, and now has several major developments on the way.
But critics can rightly say the city’s efforts have barely begun to solve deep problems in road conditions and housing, while Dayton is still the region’s clear crime leader, and downtown office vacancy rates are among the highest in the nation.
“I don’t know any time in history where you could say (so many) things have happened in four years that have had an impact on people’s lives,” Leitzell claimed. “Change came, and it did not come in the way people expected. I had four years to do the best I could, and I know I’ve made a difference.”
Despite leaving office Monday, Leitzell is not stepping away from politics. He is currently gathering signatures to run for Montgomery County commissioner this year.
We’ll have coverage of Nan Whaley’s swearing in as Dayton’s new mayor in Tuesday’s newspaper. We’ll also cover the inauguration on Twitter starting at 10 a.m. Monday at @Ohio_Politics