Jeff Buchanan left for work Wednesday as North Las Vegas’ fire chief and came home as acting city manager.
The abrupt Aug. 14 resignation of two-year City Manager Tim Hacker has thrust Buchanan into arguably the hottest of hot seats at City Hall, one that saw his predecessor lambasted for “union busting” and eventually sued by the president of one the city’s three major bargaining groups.
Buchanan is seen as the union-friendly choice to serve as Hacker’s interim replacement — the type of appointment meant to help thaw icy relations with unions still smarting after a city-declared “fiscal emergency” prompted an estimated $25 million in public safety employee pay freezes in July 2012.
Union-backed Mayor John Lee doesn’t see it that way.
“(Union leaders) had nothing to do with it. I don’t consult with them on how to run the city,” Lee said. “I would have appointed (Buchanan) if he were in Parks and Recreation.”
Lee said the city’s Fire Department head often served as acting city manager in the event of Hacker’s absence at a staff or City Council meeting, making him an obvious choice for the job.
He said Buchanan comes without many of the “style differences” that once strained the relationship between himself and Hacker.
“He has a super high intellect,” the first-term mayor said. “So I’m not just throwing this guy out there. When I took it to the other (department heads) the day Tim resigned, they all offered their full support.”
For now, Buchanan is still splitting time with his fire chief’s job, though Lee expects he’ll hand over the Fire Department reins to Assistant Chief Fire Ray Kessler or Assistant Fire Chief Tim Sendelbach sometime in the coming weeks.
Buchanan, reached Tuesday, wasn’t willing to attach a timeline to anything.
“It’s pretty early and we’re still working on some things, but I haven’t named anybody acting fire chief yet,” he said. “It takes hard work and being organized with my time, but for now I am in both positions.”
The 41-year-old University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate steps in to lead a municipality that’s shed nearly 1,000 positions since 2009, casualties of three straight years of eight-digit budget deficits which have helped win the city’s recently awarded “junk” bond status from the credit rating agency Standard & Poors.
He holds degrees in business and public administration, though he, like most undergraduates, wasn’t necessarily peppered with exam questions on how to handle millions of dollars in Fire Department cutbacks and Police Department pay freezes.
Buchanan said he is confident he can find those answers through a simple formula: One part hard work, one part trial and error.
“If you stick with one style you won’t get much done,” he said. “I’m a hard worker and I’m all about cooperation, but I’m also firm.
“So I’m a combo platter. I pay attention, pull facets from what everyone has to say, and through trial and error find what works.”
The acting city manager’s first day on the job came Wednesday , a meeting that saw council members delay action on a proposed $4.1 million out-of-court settlement with the Police Officers Association.
Collective bargaining agreements with that group and each of the city’s two other public safety unions are scheduled to expire sometime over the next two years.
If the time comes, Police Supervisors Association President Leonard Cardinale said he’d be excited to see Buchanan take up Hacker’s old seat across the bargaining table.
As for the new city manager’s leadership style, Cardinale said he has heard nothing but good things.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to said (Buchanan) is genuinely nice and genuinely fair,” he said. “That’s all we can ask for. Hacker’s negotiation skills did not start from a place that was in good faith, that was fair.”
Between severance packages and the cost of nationwide searches to replace Hacker and City Attorney Jeff Barr — who handed in his resignation within hours of the former city manager — the total cost associated with the Aug. 14 City Hall shake-up could easily reach the mid six figures.
Meanwhile, Buchanan plans to collect the same paycheck he landed at the Fire Department, doing twice the work for around $50,000 less a year than his City Hall predecessor was being paid.
It’ll be worth every penny, according to longtime resident and City Council watchdog Bob Borgersen.
“I don’t think it was a bad thing,” Borgersen said of Buchanan’s promotion Tuesday. “The unions probably, partially, had something to do with it and (Hacker) probably didn’t do a bad job under the circumstances, but remember this is a guy who was fired from Mesquite, so that says a lot right there.”
Contact reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.