Gainesville’s interim city manager takes reins

Although last week was Cynthia W. Curry’s first official week as Gainesville’s interim city manager, she puts the emphasis in that phrase squarely on “city manager,” not on the interim label.

“Whether I am here three days, three months or three years, my job is the same,” Curry told Mainstreet Daily News in a phone interview. “It is to direct, to redirect, to coach and to guide and to manage and to micromanage if I need to, [though micromanaging] is not my preference. But it’s my job regardless if it is interim or permanent.”

It was the same thing she told the city’s department heads as she spent her first week meeting the city’s internal and external partners.

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“This week has gone well,” Curry said. “I have a lot I’m trying to pull in…[but] I feel good. I am inspired.”

She also survived her first Gainesville City Commission meeting as interim city manager on Thursday. The meeting got off to a slow start with a longer-than-usual general public comment segment, but it wrapped up in 5 hours and 15 minutes, making it the shortest regular commission meeting since April.

“The big question is how long will the honeymoon last,” Curry said with a laugh. “It’s hard to call.”

Curry is replacing City Manager Lee Feldman, who resigned in September and officially ended his tenure on Nov. 12.

At the Oct. 12 meeting where the commission unanimously selected Curry as interim city manager, multiple commissioners expressed how impressed they were with her and the way she answered their questions.

Asked to describe the answers that won her the job, Curry again laughs.

“My answers are a sum of my life experiences…which have been rich,” she said.

Curry grew up an hour’s drive from Gainesville in East Palatka. Her father was an elementary school principal and a Methodist minister who met his wife when they attended the same theological seminary.

“Growing up in that environment, faith and books, faith and education, they led the way for us,” the North Florida native said. “I cherish my family, and I cherish the faith my family was built on.”

Curry is the seventh of eight children, and in 1965 her family integrated the public school system in Putnam County.

“This was voluntary, before the mandate to integrate,” said Curry, who was a fifth grader at the time. “I had a terrific experience with that in terms of shaping my whole outlook on society and how to engage and to integrate, while still maintaining my personal beliefs and who I am and how I was raised.”

Her formative experiences led Curry to the University of Miami, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in politics and public affairs. She interned in 1978 with Miami-Dade County, then upon graduation went to work full time as “a number grinder” in the budget office.

“I got into building the budget and working with department directors on taking the budgets and relating them to the goals and objectives and all the performance parameters for spending the money,” Curry said.

She worked her way into the assistant budget direct position with Miami-Dade, which in turn brought her into more senior management roles, including assistant county manager.

After leaving Miami-Dade County government, she spent the first of two stints as a vice president for finance and administration of a university, first with Florida International in the ‘90s, then with Florida Memorial University from 2013 to 2019.

She also ran a small business and worked as a consultant, including for the City of Gainesville, and most recently for the Florida Everglades Foundation.

“My experience has been broad,” she said. “I have worked with many, many people. I have worked at the neighborhood level a lot, which I truly enjoy.”

Getting city services out to people at the neighborhood level is part of what Curry says will be a challenge and goal of her time as interim city manager.

“It’s a lot to be done at the city, and that’s what excites me and inspires me to want to continue to serve here in the City of Gainesville,” Curry said. “There’s just a cry for these [city] services to connect more with people and the public.”

In a transition overview she provided to the commission, Curry said she outlined some of the city’s ongoing issues, including public safety and crime, housing, and a health care facility for East Gainesville.

“There are residents, there are neighbors, [and] there are people who are on the other end of what we do, and they don’t care whether I am interim or permanent,” Curry said. “They simply want to see the city work and provide those services that we are empowered or mandated to provide.”

She said she wants to improve community engagement, “working with neighbors that feel left out” in places like the Duval and Porters neighborhoods.

“We need to bring attention to the fact that we care,” Curry said.

While sometimes Gainesville may not have control over a problem, Curry said it is still important to provide “a forum to be heard”—and, when necessary, help residents reach state and federal agencies.

“It is still important to hear why their concerns are and where possible, advocate on their behalf, even though the buck may not stop with you,” she said.

Curry said her role is to support the work of department directors and their teams, who get services to residents.

“Where I come in is making sure my style of management doesn’t inhibit [providing services] in the most effective and efficient way,” Curry said. “Every department has a charge. They have goals and objectives to meet, and they will come in and do that.”

In talking about city workers, she doesn’t frequently call them staff or employees or even use the city’s preferred term of community builders. “My team” or “the city’s team” peppers her discussion of her leadership approach and her goals for the city.

“That’s the platform from which I work,” Curry said. “I need to be a good coach. I need to be a good steward, and I need to make sure that all of the folks that are on the team that I lead have the same values and that same drive and passion to pull it off and make it happen.”

Curry is one of three Gainesville charter officers serving in interim positions, including Daniel Nee, the interim city attorney, and Zeriah Folston, the interim director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

She said she recognizes the city’s staff has gone through a lot of transitions.

“Consistency in leadership is a very big part of [a thriving city],” Curry said. “I hope to provide that consistency in leadership by listening and making modifications when we need to and providing help when we need that.”

The interim role may last a while. The commission previously indicated it doesn’t expect to begin a search for a permanent city manager until after next fall’s city elections.

Curry says that doesn’t change her approach to the job.

“Whatever is my time here, I will give it my best,” Curry said. “I will try to end my day satisfied with my efforts. And if I am not, I will try harder the next day.”

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