In hindsight, walking into a $600,000 budget deficit the first day on the job was a good thing for City Manager Robert Layton.
Finance is in his comfort zone.
And trying to squeeze more money and efficiency out of City Hall gave him a chance to test his new staff and learn the details of dozens of programs.
Budget woes are one thing.
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An emotional showdown over a war memorial, a political mess over the future of the Wichita Boathouse and passionate opinions about spending on downtown are quite another.
By most accounts, Layton handled the ordinary and extraordinary with a deft hand in his first year as city manager.
His prospects were very much in question at the start, as City Council members fought over whether to hire him.
"He has done not only a good job, but a fabulous job," said Mayor Carl Brewer, who with council members Sue Schlapp and Lavonta Williams opposed his hiring. They wanted to hire Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan.
They doubted Layton because he had managed a much smaller and less diverse city — Urbandale, Iowa — for 24 years.
The doubts have mostly dissolved.
"He's getting us through the difficult budgetary times, which was a main concern," Brewer said. "We weren't sure coming from a city that size coming to this city that he could handle that."
Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, who supported Layton's hiring, said Layton has already made City Hall more efficient.
"A lot of the people who were very skeptical of Bob have come to me and said we made a good decision," Skelton said."... Bob has shown himself as someone you can work with and trust."
New boss and layoffs
Many people praised Layton for opening the public discussion on the city's budget a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
But he was grilled by city employees, three state representatives and several residents for recommending that the city consolidate some services, such as grease trap and restaurant inspections, and eliminate more than 60 park maintenance jobs.
"You're just dumping people on the street!" one resident said during an public budget meeting on a July evening.
Layton remained calm as person after person challenged his thinking.
He listened to alternatives and explained why he felt park mowing, at least, could be handled by private companies for less tax dollars.
It didn't please everyone — and Layton knew it.
He began talks with the Service Employees Union International, which represents some parks workers and about 1,000 city employees overall, to find ways to make sure city employees wouldn't add to the lines of Wichitans seeking help in a down economy.
Since then, all but two parks maintenance employees have found other jobs in City Hall or resigned.
"People have seen salaries diminish," said Harold Schlechtweg, the union's business representative. "But, on the whole, it was handled in a very good way."
Schlechtweg, a keen observer of city government, said he thinks Layton was greeted with a lot of doubt but has built credibility across the city.
"Everything I hear from people is that they really like this guy," he said. "He's good-natured, and he doesn't carry grudges, and he seems not to have an ego that gets in the way."
City managers typically don't get to tackle one issue at a time.
Layton's first week also came amid a heated struggle over the future of the vacant Boathouse.
He spent part of his fourth day on the job in the chilly and naturally lit Boathouse, where potential investors and business people gathered to get a tour before presenting their proposals to the city.
Layton observed silently from the back row of chairs
He had read up on the building's history and apparently understood the gravity of the years-long debate.
On this front, Layton acknowledges he got a little lucky.
Bill Koch, a billionaire who already had control of some of the Boathouse land, stepped forward with a proposal to let the financially strapped Kansas Sports Hall of Fame (which the city was about to evict from its Old Town home) move in lease-free.
But Layton's open-minded approach to negotiations and analysis of the city's responsibilities gave the council and Koch's representatives confidence to proceed.
"The decision on the Boathouse issue today wouldn't have happened without his leadership,'' Koch's lawyer, Harry Najim, said at the time. "He took it over and made it happen."
Layton also presided over testy negotiations about whether to allow the Vietnamese Community of Wichita to build a memorial to honor the sacrifices of Americans and South Vietnamese who fought the communist North Vietnamese
Vietnam veterans were adamant that Veterans Memorial Park was made for veterans of the American military only. The controversy re-ignited the feelings of disrespect many Vietnam veterans have endured — once again, they said, veterans were not being heard.
The Vietnamese Community said they just wanted to thank American veterans in Wichita for fighting on their behalf and for welcoming them to their community after the war.
"Both are very legitimate points of view," Layton said.
Council members received hundreds of e-mails on the issue, including some with racist undertones, and the story got national attention.
Layton employed a tactic sometimes used in labor negotiations.
He brought representatives from both sides to his office in the corner of the 13th floor of City Hall.
When the groups wouldn't budge, he split them into two rooms and the two sides shuttled their wishes back and forth until a tentative compromise emerged.
A week or so later, the council approved a compromise to let the Vietnamese-Americans build a memorial adjacent to — but not inside — the memorial park.
And they voted to allow only memorials to American military veterans in the park in the future.
Layton will almost undoubtedly face more contentious issues.
He has begun discussions to create a franchised trash pick-up system that would give each private hauler a zone in the city. The issue has been a politically heated stalemate for years.
Layton recommended adding money to repair the city's deteriorating streets, but had to nix it in this year's tight budget. An additional $2 million is set for next year.
"I'm committed to continue to make that recommendation," he said.
But it's unclear whether state cuts will add to declining tax revenue and force more changes — or even layoffs — at City Hall.
All this will give the manager something to think about on his long runs.
Layton, now 54, runs about 50 miles a week as he trains for a marathon.
He runs in a group twice a week and often runs along the Arkansas River on one of the city's premier trails.
Since arriving, Layton has explored the city from the Final Friday Art Crawl to city trails to luncheons put on by Democrats and Republicans.
He first lived at Eaton Place near Intrust Bank Arena, and later moved to a condo at WaterWalk Place near the Arkansas River.
The move, and his social life to some extent, have blended his nonwork life with his professional one, though he said he keeps strict walls between them.
He acknowledges that owning property in one of the city's most criticized public-private projects presents a conflict to an extent.
So, he said he has assistant city manager Cathy Holdeman or other officials directly handle anything that would affect his condo.
He said owning the condo might give him a closer perspective on the project, but probably isn't much different than living in a particular neighborhood and having a close perspective on it.
Layton has also put firewalls between himself and decisions about whether to assist Real Development Inc., which owns about 13 major high-rises downtown.
The developers have frequently sought the city's approval of projects and assistance to renovate building facades.
Layton, who divorced last year, is dating Beth King, who has represented Real Development projects in City Hall.
Layton has said he will not make recommendations on any project that King is representing or present the items to council members. And he has said he's offended by suggestions that his private life would interfere with his professional decisions.
Several council members have said Layton informed them of the relationship early on, that they haven't seen even a hint of bias and would act immediately if there were.
Layton has spoken and listened at district advisory board meetings, neighborhood gatherings, business luncheons and the like.
He has even helped mend relations with Sunflower Community Action, a nonprofit advocacy group that clashed sharply with former City Manager George Kolb.
Jason Selmon, director of the community activism organization, said Layton has been far more receptive to putting cameras in police cars, a priority of the group for four years.
"He has been a lot more open to meeting with us than George Kolb was," Selmon said.
Layton said he feels Wichita has opened up to him.
On several occasions, he's said that he knew Wichitans were nice people, but that he's surprised how many people will recognize him in a grocery store or out on the town and strike up a friendly conversation.
"People have been so welcoming here," he said. "I feel really fortunate and blessed everyday that I'm here. I do love this town."