Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Agency gets new boss

Stresses social services oversight

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two weeks after the latest in a series of financial scandals rocked Cincinnati's neighborhood services department, the director is being replaced with one of the city's top fiscal watchdogs.

        Francis Wagner, manager of accounts and audits, will take over for Cheryl Meadows as lead of the city's primary social service agency.

    Job changes at City Hall effective Monday.
• Neighborhood Services Director Cheryl Meadows will become director of the employment and training division.
• Accounts and Audits Division Manager Francis Wagner will become acting director of neighborhood services.
• Employment and Training Division Director S. Gregory Baker will become assistant to the public safety director.
• Assistant Public Safety Director Rodney Prince will become personnel director.
• Accounts and Audits Supervisor Pam Sacherman will become acting manager of the accounts and audits division.
        Mr. Wagner said his focus will be on financial controls, management oversight, staff procedures and monitoring benchmarks.

        “That's what I do for a living,” he said. “In an agency such as neighborhood services, you're going to have people more concerned with social services than accounting. But that just has to be there — we're dealing with public funds.”

        Ms. Meadows, who became director in 1995, will keep her $99,000 annual salary and start July 17 as director of employment and training.

        The move is not being called a demotion or a promotion. City Manager John Shirey announced it along with four other personnel changes.

        Some City Council members said the neighborhood services move comes too late.

        “This is the classic case of closing the barn door after the horse is gone,” Councilman Phil Heimlich said Tuesday. “It's troubling that well over $1 million has been wasted and not one city employee has been held accountable.”

        Mr. Shirey did not return phone calls Tuesday. But in an interview last week, he defended city employees. He said not enough blame was being placed on the people who were entrusted with the money.

        The effectiveness of neighborhood services has been called into question three times since February, with investigations showing almost $2 million slated for housing and public improvements in the West End going instead to private individuals.

        The most recent incident was detailed in a June 30 audit. It showed $82,000 was paid to West End Community Council officers and their families. Although Ms. Meadows signed contracts saying she would be responsible for monitoring all payouts, the city's auditor found that thousands went for unidentified expenses and questionable purchases since 1992.

        Ms. Meadows did not return phone calls Tuesday. In an interview last week, she said she was preparing a written response for the city manager and the council.

        Mayor Charlie Luken said changes were “clearly needed” years ago.

        “Problems in the (neighborhood services) department required a change in the leadership, and I've urged that of the city manager,” he said.

        But council members should take responsibility for not doing something sooner, Mr. Luken said. He noted reports in 1994 showing the council approved spending for the West End Community Council and said elected officials took a lackadaisical attitude toward review.

        The city's probe of the West End Community Council was sparked in February, after an Enquirer investigation of Genesis Redevelopment Inc., the nonprofit development arm of the West End Community Council.

        The newspaper found board members had used money slated for low-income housing to write themselves checks and hire family members. And despite receiving nearly $800,000 in federal grants through neighborhood services since 1991, Genesis had remod eled its offices, made minor repairs to 11 homes and built one other home.

        In May, the city's Office of Municipal Investigations alleged that executives of Owning the Realty — another West End developer — misspent $972,000 in federal grant money distributed by neighborhood services from 1991 to 1994.

        Mr. Wagner said his job is to balance programs with accountability.

        “We need to deliver a mix of services, but at the same time make sure the people get what we are paying for.”


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