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Friday, 29 January 2016 14:59

Baptism by fire: Curtis Luther hits the ground running

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Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther addresses a vigil last Sunday for 5-year-old Austin Ramos Jr. who was killed Jan. 22 when a gunman opened fire on the car he was riding in. Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther addresses a vigil last Sunday for 5-year-old Austin Ramos Jr. who was killed Jan. 22 when a gunman opened fire on the car he was riding in. Dan Plutchak/staff

BELOIT -- Lori Curtis Luther describes her first seven months as Beloit’s city manager as "uniquely challenging."

Just this week, she's helped calm a grieving city following the shooting death of 5-year-old Austin Ramos Jr.

That follows months-long maneuvering to remove the police chief, and next up is a tough city budget.

"Calm is not a descriptor that I would use," Curtis Luther said. "There’s been a great deal of organizational change that has occurred in a short period of time. I can’t say that has been typical in any sense. With that said, I think we’ve accomplished a significant amount of positive change, and I’m very proud of the work we’re doing."

(Complete Ramos Jr. coverage HERE. Social media coverage HERE. Video HERE.)

Curtis Luther began her job as city manager on June 1, replacing Larry Arft, who retired two days later.

Within a few weeks, Curtis Luther placed former Police Chief Norm Jacobs and former Deputy Chief Tom Dunkin on administrative leave after reading a preliminary report from the city’s consultant, Hillard Heintze, about management issues with the Beloit Police Department.

Curtis Luther then recommended termination for Jacobs and Dunkin in October after the Hillard Heintze report and the independent investigation found "gross misconduct, incompetence and failure to perform essential job duties," against Jacobs and Dunkin.

The Beloit City Council settled its case against Jacobs and Dunkin in late December.

"Typically, I wouldn’t be seeking to make any major changes until I had been a part of the community for a longer period of time; however, in this circumstance, that wasn’t possible," Curtis Luther said. "Sometimes situations occur that are so critical that they need immediate attention and that was our situation. You have to adapt to circumstances and appropriately deal with the situation based on the circumstances, so that’s what I did."

Curtis Luther said she had some understanding of the situation between the city and the police department before she accepted the job, based on research she conducted.

"I wasn’t necessarily fully aware of how serious some of the issues were because we didn’t fully know until we received the preliminary report from Hillard Heintze," Curtis Luther said. "When the information was available, it was shared with me, but some of it came forward just as I was being hired."

Curtis Luther said it was difficult to deal with such a situation before being able to become completely familiar with city staff and the community.

"Anytime you start a new position, you have to build trust with your staff, with your council and with the community at large. And because I had to act so quickly, I was doing so without having the benefit of earning the trust of individuals and groups," Curtis Luther said. "Thankfully, there was such a desire for action that staff was overwhelmingly supportive, and as we’ve been able to better inform the public about what necessitated those decisions, I think there was a general acceptance and understanding of why I had to make those decisions."

Charles Haynes, city council president, said Curtis Luther has done a good job of immediately dealing with the situations regarding the police department.

"We kind of dumped her off at the deep end when she first started," Haynes said. "But there were some big things that needed to be done, and she handled it. Most people would’ve been tentative, but she wasn’t tentative."

Although issues with the police have dominated the headlines, Curtis Luther said the city council has a significant challenge developing a budget for 2016.

"Cities across the state -- and Beloit is no exception -- are going to be in a difficult situation, so creating a budget for the council to consider that ensured that we’re living within our means was of utmost importance," Curtis Luther said. "It’s really one of the most important things we do, living within that budget and adjusting to circumstances as they occur."

Haynes said Curtis Luther has done a quality job of dealing with the city’s issues.

"She’s a great professional," Haynes said. "She’s animated and energetic. I wish everyone who I’ve worked with were as professional as she is."

Curtis Luther said she has received a lot of support from Arft, who has helped her become familiar with the job.

"Larry has been enormously helpful with my transition," Curtis Luther said. "In fact, I still talk to him on a periodic basis. Knowing that he was going to continue to live in the community said to me about his passion for Beloit, and I’m really glad that he chose to stay here."

Before coming to Beloit, Curtis Luther worked as the administrator for Peoria County in Illinois. She also has worked as a city manager for Waukesha. Curtis Luther said she became interested in city management while taking a local government class in high school.

"High school government class was really my first exposure to government, and I’ve just been fascinated by it ever since," Curtis Luther said. "I went to my first city council meeting when I was an undergraduate student, and I guess I was bitten by the local government bug. I love that the decisions we make are visible in the community. I spent my entire career, 20 years this year, working for cities and counties."

Curtis Luther lives in Beloit with her husband, Chris. The couple have four children. Curtis Luther said her family has enjoyed living in the city of Beloit.

"They have adjusted really well. My husband is teaching at Beloit Memorial High School, and that has worked out beautifully," Curtis Luther said. "Our oldest son is a sophomore (at Beloit Memorial), and he was excited about the opportunity to attend a much larger high school with more AP classes and other options.

"All of our kids are very adaptable. They’re more adaptable than I am. People here have really gone out of their way to make us feel welcome and part of the community, so it’s just been a really positive experience for us."

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