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Pam Don't Play

CL's Person of the Year, City Manager Pam Syfert

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Ever wonder who the most powerful people in Charlotte are? In the late 1990s, you could still get a variety of answers to that question from political observers, depending on who you asked.

Way back then, a handful of bank execs, a couple of highbrow businessmen from Charlotte's old money families, and the occasional politician or government type usually made the list.

But that was before the market bubble burst and the banks began merging at the speed of light, before September 11 and Enron. One by one, Charlotte's beautiful people disengaged from public life, turning their attention to fortifying their own fortunes or keeping corporate knives out of their backs. Many weren't young to begin with, and the oldest of the powerful set simply faded into moneyed obscurity.

The economy eventually bounced back, but the titans never fully reengaged in the political game. In their stead, they left a power vacuum and a generation of lackluster politicians who were used to taking corporate marching orders. With no one else to take cues from, they've increasingly begun to follow the only people left who seem to have any sense of direction.

These days, if you ask political observers who the most powerful people in Charlotte are, they'll roll their eyes and give you the same two-word answer: City staff.

By this they mean the powerful cabal of high-level bureaucrats who work for Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert, who in recent years has arguably become the most powerful person in Charlotte.

Syfert technically works for City Council, rather than the other way around, although it's sometimes hard to tell. Syfert has never let the Council stand in the way of her all-consuming vision, or her remarkable consolidation of power under the city crown.

Although it's usually Mayor Pat McCrory or the Council who take the heat on local talk radio for city policy -- or the praise for it from the Charlotte Observer -- it's really Syfert who controls the city's agenda with an iron fist and the City Council that does the rubber-stamping.

Don't let Syfert's sweet, soft-spoken demeanor and insistence that she takes her direction from the Council fool you. She's a master at subtly railroading the politicians she works for. That doesn't mean that they don't rein her in from time to time, but that usually only happens when the Council is facing down an angry mob that's been jerked around by city bureaucrats hard enough that they've actually organized and come to a Council meeting. But in the absence of an angry neighborhood mob, Syfert rarely faces difficult questions from the Council.

Syfert traffics in information the way a drug lord traffics in cocaine. When Council members ask too many pointed questions about a pet project that is part of Her Plan, they find themselves essentially cut off, spinning in a whirlwind of polite smiles, half-answers and bureaucratic minutiae.

Syfert clearly prefers to ask forgiveness rather than ask permission. That's why Council members rarely learn the real costs, or the most politically unpalatable details, of controversial projects until after they've approved them, at which point confusion ensues and the City Council comes out looking dumb. In the process, Council members come to learn shocking truths, like, for instance, that they've voted for a plan that will pull police officers off-duty or pay them overtime to provide free traffic control to the Bobcats at a cost of approximately $20 million over the life of the contract. This is typical Syfert.

Riding The Rails
To understand the impact Syfert has had, you've got to go back to the October 1996 reception celebrating her ascension to the post of City Manager after 24 years of service to the city.

Back then, battling traffic congestion by building more roads was the holy grail of local politics, an issue that had decided mayoral contests and sunk politicians unwilling to go along.

As was expected, Syfert paid homage to asphalt in her comments that day, promising to balance building roads with "public safety concerns."

She didn't mean it. In fact, Syfert promptly proceeded to do the opposite. Roads just didn't fit into her plan. According to the Syfert dogma, which would eventually become conventional wisdom here, a strong urban core is the answer to every problem. Nothing bad could ever befall a city with a strong urban core. What's more, uptown had to be expanded beyond the chokehold of the John Belk Freeway if it were to prosper, preferably in the South Boulevard direction. A trolley, light rail or some combination thereof would justify, both legally and publicly, the demolition and rebuilding of an entire decrepit corridor. It would also make whatever governmental entity that controlled the transit lines the premier power player in the development of the new uptown, a fact that wasn't lost on Syfert.

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