Has a contentious relationship with city council sent City Manager Jim Spore job hunting?

No one is saying why for sure, but Jim Spore is out of town.  Back near Garland, TX - the city he left to come to Virginia Beach.  Maybe looking for a simpler spot to retire (he's coming up on 60 years of age) or to use his Virginia Beach-honed expertise to work his city manager's magic on another less sophisticated city?

It was reported in 1991 when he was preparing to leave Garland to come to Virginia Beach, "City Manager James K. Spore had been around long enough to know that a shift in local politics meant his days were numbered. So he quit."  He was Garland's city manager from 1985 until coming to the beach in 1991.

After 12 years in Virginia Beach, sources close to him said, Spore has become fed up with new, more public oriented members of council who are demanding more public accountability.  Twelve years is almost double the normal career life span of a city manager in one place.  And he is thinking again: It might be time to mosey on.

On the other hand, this may be just a whining ploy by Spore to bluff the council and whip them back in line, regain the control he's enjoyed over previous councils during his tenure here.

There are reports that there is a six (6) vote bloc who can fire him at any time and he has been reading the tea leaves about his future. Spore is a proud, ego-sensitive man who has done some great things, but has committed the city to other projects that are very costly and don't have public support.

Publicly and privately, council members identified as being members of that bloc deny there has been talk of canning the city manager.  Spore, who can be a kind and gentle man, does not take kindly to being challenged publicly by lesser mortals - including members of council, whom he doesn't believe have his big picture view or vast bureaucratic government knowledge.

Two weeks ago, Spore recoiled and struck back after an exchange with Councilmen Richard Maddox and Jim Reeve over how he and his staff had handled (poorly the councilmen thought) plans for after hours staffing of the oceanfront with lifeguards from city resources rather than through the regular lifeguard service.  

And at one point during the conversation, Spore testily told the councilmen that what they were saying and/or proposing "wasn't their job."  Spore told them, "The last time I checked we had a city manager/city council form of government."  Meaning "Butt out, boys, this is my territory."

Councilmen Reeve and Maddox disagreed saying that the council is like the board of directors and they indeed have the right to question how policy is administered.

As he prepared to leave Garland in 1985, it was reported:  "People from both Garland and Minnesota (where he served prior to Garland) said the bureaucrat's (Spore's) biggest weakness was getting caught in the typical debate over how administrative tasks should be divided between a city manager and the city council.  

"Local politicians say Spore's final conflict in Texas concerned his private protests that a new mayor had become too involved in the hiring of a new police chief."  Is this deja vous all over again?

Spore manipulated the council

Shortly after riding into town from Texas' 3rd world city of Garland, Spore decided on a way to avoid direct confrontation with his council:  Manipulate them.  

He did this by bringing in his old buddy Lyle Sumek, a municipal consensus building snake-oil type salesman.

In his dog and pony show, Sumek got the mostly redneck council together and asked them to list all the things they would like to see accomplished in Virginia Beach.

Then he went through a ritual of having them prioritize what should be first, what next, and so on.  Sumek left town, crunched the results and then came back with a report - telling the council that it had decided the most important thing in the city was whatever.  The second was ... and so on. These wonderful sessions and visions were then widely publicized and hyped as the direction in which the city was moving..

After boxing the council in, committing it to the numbers 1,2, & 3 hottest, most absolutely necessary projects, Spore would come back and tell the council:  "You have committed to doing this, that and the other.  This is the cost and we will pay for it by raising taxes or whatever." 

"Hell at that point," said one, "we were stuck.  We'd committed, prioritized, publicized, and now we had to do it and finance it or look like a bunch of dumb asses.  

"That is how Jim Spore manipulated us, " the council member said. "It may be time for him to go."

Reeve doesn't seem to think so.  "We've had some situations where we didn't agree 100%, but that is going to happen on a routine basis, but Jim hasn't said anything to me."  Reeve said he's had no discussion about firing Spore.

Maddox agreed:  "I'm shocked. I'm a big fan of Jim Spore. I wouldn't support dumping Spore at all. I think good people can disagree.  I think it is much ado about nothing. We (this current council) have a little difference in style and in the way we operate from how the old council did things, but that's normal."

Peter Schmidt added, "That's the first I've heard of it. I hope there's no substance to it. It will be interesting to see how it plays out."

Others, declining to be named, said, "I think that this is an opportunity for Jim to go job hunting."

It is no secret that there is considerable turmoil floating around Spore's normally controlled environment.  Chief of Staff Oral Lambert left in March.  He was Spore's 'historical memory' in this city.  Said one, "Oral was invaluable.  He knew the good. He knew the bad. He knew what was where and in between.  And he knew how to maneuver to avoid trouble.  No one knew this city's inner workings like Oral Lambert."

Of Spore they said, "Anyone can look good when times are good.  For most of his tenure, he has had more money coming in on the left than he could shovel out on the right.  He was a master at moving the council where he wanted to go with big ticket, costly projects.

"Now you have him angrily snapping back at his council members.  This is not the way Spore likes to work. He likes to have his disagreements, and he can get testy, with council members behind the closed door of his office on a more one-on-one basis."

Despite his normally public calm demeanor, Spore has been known to blow when things didn't go his way.  In 2000, during the city council election when there was an aggressive referendum issue on the ballot over Spore's plans to cut a deal with two (2) convicts to build a hotel on city property at 31st Street & Oceanfront, Spore revealed his Jekyll Hyde personality.

On a Saturday afternoon, driving south along First Colonial Road at the Target parking lot where the anti-hotel campaign was holding a protest, Spore angrily stopped, got out of  his little 2-seater Corvette, grabbed campaign signs like a 'madman,' and busted them up. Some he clumsily stuffed in the trunk of his little car even.

He was described as red-faced, out of control, and oblivious to the public and a photographer or two.  Later some speculated that he acted so irrationally because his only daughter was suffering a severe medical problem and that he had more on his plate with that, and the election, than he could emotionally handle.  There were calls for the council to force him to undergo anger management treatment.

With the old council, he could rant and scream with his select group of council members in private and then put on a calm public united front.  He always let them know, however, he was in charge.  Reeve typifies the change.  The new council member.  He said, "We have public policy, safety and large financial issues that should have an open honest discussion."  This is counter to Spore's style.

And Spore feels, said one close associate, that he has reached the point in his life that he doesn't have to be bothered with conforming to new rules of accountability.  Therefore, he has concluded that, like in Garland, he'd rather quit than conform.

If he does leave, he and the previous council will leave the current council and city with some big, costly, and unfinished projects: Town Center, a new arts theater that has jumped in cost from $20 to $35 to $50 MILLION, a new $200 MILLION-plus convention center, an alleged 4-star hotel at 31st Street, and development of the 19th corridor to the oceanfront and Rudee Loop - all controversial, budget-busting and lacking full citizen support.  But unlike council which has to be responsive to the people, Spore is not elected. He can take his marbles and leave whenever he wants - council or no council. The council will be stuck with the projects, the costs, and the people. 

He'd like to stay and see the projects to completion, but to do that the council would have to stop questioning his motives and tactics and policies in public.  Most of the new council members were elected on pledges to do as much of the public's business in public as possible.  The last time he checked, Virginia Beach may have a city manager/council form of government, but the council will have to do things his way if he's to stay.