City finance nominee had turbulent record in Richmond

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's nominee for city finance director spent a tumultuous three years as top financial official in Richmond, Va., during which he oversaw the forced ejection of the school board from City Hall and was sued by the Richmond City Council, according to news reports.

Harry E. Black was nicknamed "the mayor's pit bull" for the ferocity with which he implemented Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's agenda in Richmond from 2005 to 2008, according to news reports. The City Council there twice rejected Black's appointment for a higher-ranking position, citing his aggressive personality.

In Baltimore on Monday, Black attributed his contentious tenure in Richmond to a voter-mandated change in governing style there. The city moved from a city-manager model to a strong-mayor system, robbing the council of power and stoking political tensions, Black said in an interview.

"There was tremendous tension between the City Council and the mayor, which a lot of staff, including myself, got caught in the middle of," said Black, 49.

Black said his experiences in Richmond would have "no impact" on his work in Baltimore.

"The key for me in that experience is learning the significance of … communication," he said. "You can never have enough of it. It has to be mutual communication and mutual respect.

"I look forward to working with the council members here in terms of open communications, supportiveness and responsiveness," he said.

Black — whose appointment to the $180,000-a-year post requires approval by the City Council — would replace Edward Gallagher, who has worked in the city's Finance Department since William Donald Schaefer's mayoral administration.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he knew little about Black but vowed that the council would thoroughly review his record.

"I have to do my due diligence and check out his references and resume," Young said. He said he could look past any concerns about Black's tenure in Richmond.

"I believe in second chances," he said.

Rawlings-Blake praised Black's experience as she introduced him to City Council members at a luncheon meeting Monday. "Hopefully, you will be as impressed as I am," she told them. "I was pleased to have someone with Mr. Black's credentials.

Rawlings-Blake, through an aide, declined to answer questions about Black's appointment.

A spokesman said Rawlings-Blake attributes Black's rocky tenure in Richmond to the change in the form of government and stressed Black's accomplishments.

"Our process showed that Mr. Black presided over three successful [comprehensive] audits and a bond rating upgrade during his time in Richmond," mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email. "He is well-known and well-respected among the municipal credit rating agencies and their analysts."

Rawlings-Blake chose Black after paying Ralph Anderson Associates $30,000 to conduct a national search to find Gallagher's successor.

Black, who grew up in Park Heights, told council members, "It's a privilege and an honor to be able to come back home."

Black attended Baltimore public schools before earning a bachelor's degree from Virginia State University and a master's in public administration from the University of Virginia.

He worked for the New York City Transit Authority and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey before becoming the chief financial officer with the District of Columbia.

He served under then-Mayor Anthony Williams' administration in the 1990s. Williams did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

For the past three years, Black worked as the executive vice president and chief operating officer for Global Commerce Solutions Inc., which provides financial consulting services to federal agencies. News reports show Black has been a top candidate for posts in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Chesapeake, Va., in recent months.

But it is his time in Richmond during which Black garnered the most media attention.

Under Black's leadership, the city withheld nearly $900,000 in payments to the school system in 2007, refusing to release the funds until the school board agreed to an audit. The school board sued both Wilder and Black over the move.

Later that year, Wilder administration officials swept into the school board's offices in City Hall after working hours, hustling out employees, equipment and documents. A Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist at the time described the feud between the administration, council and school board as making "'the Sopranos look like Ward and June Cleaver."

A Richmond judge ultimately ruled against the administration and ordered the mayor to lease space in city hall to the school board.

A 2008 comprehensive audit cited poor record keeping in Black's finance department, indicating that more than $7 million in deposits had not been properly recorded.

Black said Monday that he did not recall such an audit and stressed that Richmond's credit rating had improved during his tenure.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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