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In shake-up, Menino says yes to his 'Dr. No' of finance

Mayor Thomas M. Menino promoted Lisa C. Signori, who gains authority over the library system, labor negotiations, and oversight of managers. (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)

Few outside the concrete warrens of Boston City Hall have heard of Lisa Signori. As the city's chief financial officer, she approves property tax rates and, as the chief architect of the city budget, determines how much money will be spent on everything from parks and schools to police.

Over the course of a 13-year career at City Hall, Signori has become one of Mayor Thomas M. Menino's most trusted advisers. Now, she has become what some consider the most powerful figure in the administration behind the mayor.

As part of a major shakeup, Menino recently promoted Signori, handing her broad oversight of the city government's operations. As the new director of administration and finance -- a cabinet post created for her that combines her duties with those of the former chief operating officer -- she gains authority over the library system, labor negotiations, and oversight of city managers at all levels in the city's 40-plus departments.

More than a routine change of the palace guard, the move represents a new direction for Boston's city governance -- one where decisions are more often based on spreadsheets and computer models than on the old stalwarts of relationships and patronage.

Best known inside City Hall as a bean-counter who carries a calculator and keeps a tight rein on expenses, even when Menino is under intense political pressure to spend on services including police, Signori also has become known as the champion of a system for empirically evaluating the performance of city functions by gathering and manipulating data.

"I plan to do what I've done here, to take a systematic approach of data-driven decision making," she said of how she expects to handle her new responsibilities. "To use information and analytics to squeeze the best value we can out of every tax dollar."

Signori's promotion, on one level, reflects a nationwide trend toward data-driven city management. Computerized programs like CitiStat in Baltimore, SomerStat in Somerville, and Boston about Results track productivity rates of city services -- such as the numbers of potholes filled or resident complaints resolved within 24 hours -- and hold supervisors accountable for lackluster results. Signori initiated the Boston program last year.

Menino said the shakeup, officially scheduled for July 1, will streamline city government. The mayor initiated the reorganization after his longtime friend and chief operating officer for the city, Dennis A. DiMarzio, retired last month. Under the new structure, his position will be eliminated and his duties will be transferred to Signori.

Signori, who oversees assessing, auditing, budgeting, retirement board, and treasury, will now supervise the city's human resources department, public library, registry of births, deaths, and marriages, and labor relations and contract negotiations with public employee unions.

She will also be responsible for quarterly evaluations of every city department head and pay raise recommendations.

The reorganization has drawn some critics inside City Hall, who say the restructuring consolidates too much power in one cabinet position. And they say Signori often makes decisions based on spreadsheets, bond ratings, and mind-numbing charts and graphs without taking into account the human aspects of governance, the need to sometimes put aside the balance sheets, particularly when public safety is at risk.

For example, when the number of homicides in the city spiraled to a 10-year high in 2005 and the city's police commissioner called for more officers to help stem the bloodshed, it was Signori who said the city couldn't afford the expense.

"I think there are legitimate questions to be asked around the shifting of these responsibilities," Council President Maureen E. Feeney said in an interview last week.

A Bay State native and Brighton resident, Signori earned a bachelor's degree in economics at Boston College and a master's degree in public management from the University of Maryland, and completed a stint as a budget examiner in the federal Office of Management and Budget before starting work for the city in 1994 as a budget management analyst.

As she rose through the ranks of city finance, becoming budget director in 1999 and chief financial officer in 2003, Menino depended on her more when making critical management decisions.

He fondly calls her "Dr. No," and some high-ranking city officials say the mayor uses Signori in a good cop, bad cop routine.

"When someone needs something, he'll say, 'check with Lisa,' and when she says 'No,' he'll say I guess the answer's 'No,' " said one official, who declined to be identified by name for fear of retribution.

Menino says Signori is an "amazing," hardworking, intelligent woman who is sometimes misunderstood.

She doesn't engage in idle "chit-chat," he said, a quality he cherishes but which rubs some people the wrong way.

"They don't know the Lisa Signori that I know," Menino said. "I have complete confidence in her."

Signori has inspired fierce loyalty on her staff, where she is praised for consistently making time to meet with employees and taking interest in the progress of their careers.

Karen A. Connor, the city's budget director, says there is a soft, unflappably optimistic side to Signori's outwardly strict, no-nonsense image.

Signori often orders pizza for late-night work sessions, takes staff to a nearby watering hole to celebrate adoption of new budgets, and gives out stickers to employees who have done a good job.

"Like school stickers that say, 'A plus,' " said Connor, who has worked with Signori for 12 years. "I've got one on my computer right now."

Signori says she is proud of her reputation for holding the line on city finances and doesn't care what people think of her as long as she feels she's doing the right thing for the city.

"Do I lose sleep? No," she said. "I guess I see it as doing my job."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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