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The State | February 2012

A Man For The Hard Issues

He’s a self-made businessman whose curiosity about the mind-numbing depths of Columbia’s bookkeeping helped right the financial course of the city’s listing ship.

Daniel Rickenmann’s probing questions about city government’s bad financial practices that exploded into public view in 2007 won’t be heard after June 30. Columbians will select his replacement from among three contenders in an April 3 nonpartisan election. 

Rickenmann, 42, announced last summer he would not seek a third term as one of the city’s two at-large council members. He said he’s leaving to devote his energy to getting another business off the ground - a restaurant food waste conversion system that produces methane gas for sale as energy. Launching Waste 2 Energy requires lots of traveling and takes too much time from elective duties, Rickenmann said.


"This is not my seat," he said in a speech saying he was stepping down. "I believe that having different voices at the table is a good thing. It keeps the debate fresh.


"I hope I have done you proud." His supporters say Rickenmann has.


"We’re probably losing our most effective member of council," said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, an African American Democrat who considers Rickenmann, a white Republican, a friend. "I mean effective in terms of rolling up his sleeves, working hard and getting to an effective resolution of an issue. I’m going to miss working with him."


His departure leaves council without a true fiscal conservative, Rickenmann’s backers say.


Devine and Rickenmann were the faces of a new generation of leadership on City Council in 2002 and 2004 when, respectively, they unseated veterans. 

Rickenmann has left his mark largely on issues that most residents might not follow, but have long-lasting implications:


  • Leading the charge on fuller funding of the burgeoning cost of health benefits for city workers and retirees, an expense that threatened to force utility rate increases, tax increases or deep cuts in coverage 

  • Overhauling city rules that govern appointments to boards and commissions so that allies of individual council members could not hold onto more than one seat for long periods of time 

  • Negotiating a new fire service contract with Richland County, a job still under way

  • Helping to reform, most notably, the city’s finances and budgeting process.



When he was elected, Rickenmann joined then-Councilwoman Anne Sinclair in raising pointed questions about where public money was going, its sources, the commingling of accounts - and then challenged the city manager and the finance department about the soundness of accounting practices. 

In 2006, Kirkman Finlay III, son of a former mayor, added a new, loud cry for "fiscal conservatism." 


"Every time we had questions, they moved it to another account," Rickenmann recalled last week. "It was like they were playing a shell game." 

Sinclair said Rickenmann, as she did, emersed himself in the intricacies of city finances. "It’s way more complicated than people think," she said. "He had to have some time to figure out how a government budget is different than a small-business budget. These are hard, hard issues to deal with. Daniel has taken them on." 

Unlike Rickenmann, Sinclair never voted "no" on adopting a city budget, even though they shared skepticism over accuracy of the numbers. 

Council turned around after it learned that $18 million in employees’ health-care benefits expenses had been covered by money siphoned from a little-known account in the city’s general fund called the "internal services fund" as well as from water and sewer revenues. 

Finlay said the tandem of he and Rickenmann brought the rest of council to the realization that budgeting had to change.


The city’s finances "had been barreling down the road of fiscal disaster for many years," Finlay said. "I was the technical guy dealing with the numbers and Daniel was the one trying to get other council members to realize the problem. That is what Daniel did a good job of - convincing council that they may not like it, but you better go along with it. 

"The city never would ever have been able to return to financial stability without Daniel," said Finlay, who was defeated in the 2010 race for mayor and stepped down from his council seat. 

Under a more skeptical council and new leadership in key city posts, the $3 million deficit of four years ago became surpluses the past three fiscal years. However, the surplus has been dwindling from $6.7 million in 2009-10 to a projected $1.5 million this year, current city manager Steve Gantt said. 

"The dialogue is so different (now) from when I started," Rickenmann said of annual budget discussions. "I think that it’s a team sport." 

Gantt, who was promoted after city manager Charles Austin stepped down under pressure in January 2009, said Rickenmann’s contribution as chairman of the budget committee has been to "bring a businessman’s philosophy" to council and to simplify the budget - to make it understandable.


Tuesday, Rickenmann’s Finance, Audit and Budget Committee begins work on the 2012-13 budget. It will be his last.


Rickenmann became enmeshed in controversy in September 2009 when the Columbia office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development questioned federal loans connected to him as well as to Devine’s mother.


HUD wondered about a $179,000 loan to CamBry Inc., a partnership that sought to buy Rickenmann’s two Birds on a Wire restaurants. CamBry filed for bankruptcy a year after receiving the loan, resulting in the complete loss of the federal funds. 

To help clear the air, Rickenmann released a Dec. 4, 2009, letter HUD wrote to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham which states, in part, "Mr. Rickenmann is not the subject of HUD’s monitoring concern."


Rickenmann said last week he did not point the partners in CamBry to the federal loan program so they could put together a financing plan to buy his restaurants.


Rickenmann also came under scrutiny when Waste 2 Energy was being launched and it won a bid to grind yard waste from a city composing site into mulch. Having a city contract - even though the service from Waste 2 Energy was to be free to taxpayers - could be helpful to a start-up company, skeptics said. 

The city requested guidance and received an OK from the State Ethics Commission. Ultimately, the city did not go through with the contract. 

When Rickenmann arrived on council, the city lacked a permanent leader in the police and fire departments. 

A bruising fight would follow over the selection of a chief who could bring stability to a police agency shaken by internal strife, a string of interim chiefs or outside appointees who clashed with the department’s culture or with City Hall.


The battle came to a head in September 2010 when, on a tense, split vote, City Council rejected placing the department under Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Just before the vote, Rickenmann withdrew his support for Lott, and the tenuous 4-3 majority that had fallen along racial lines fell apart.


Council and Gantt ultimately chose Randy Scott, then Lott’s chief deputy. Scott has won wide acclaim by Gantt, council and many city leaders. 

Despite the rigors of eight years in office, Rickenmann said running again for elected office is still a possibility.


"I’m not going to shut the door," he said. "But I’m not rushing into the scene, either."



Rickenmann, an only child, was 7 when his father died of heart disease. 


He was raised by his mother, Anita, and graduated from USC with a degree in humanities and social sciences.


He took care of his ailing mother, Sinclair and other friends say, until she died two years ago at 74 of a rare, degenerative neurological disorder. 

He and his wife, Laura, also dealt with the passing of her mother after a fight with breast cancer.


Sinclair said one of the key measures of Rickenmann’s character is the close relationships he had with his mother and mother-in-law.


"He’s a good soul," she said. "He’s a genuine, caring human being."