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New Charlotte city manager’s role: Communication

Charlotte’s last city manager, Curt Walton, focused almost exclusively on running the city.

He did not speak at great length during meetings. He disliked media interviews and rarely showed emotion.

Ron Carlee, who succeeds Walton as manager on Monday, has been asked by Mayor Anthony Foxx and some City Council members to embody a new role – part administrator, part salesman. It’s a task Carlee, a blogger and user of Twitter, appears comfortable with.

During his time at the International City/County Management Association, where he worked after leaving Arlington County in Virginia in 2009, Carlee blogged for the Huffington Post website.

Among his posts: “The Most Important, Least Sexy Use of Tax Dollars,” in which he made the case for water and sewer upgrades; “Give Local Workers a ‘Financial Thank You’ When You Can” and “I Love You Because You Are the Garbage Man.”

Carlee, 59, is the first outside hire for city manager since Wendell White in 1981. Chosen over two internal candidates, Carlee will likely need his outreach skills to mend a city that is going through one of its most tumultuous periods.

The General Assembly is moving to shift control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to an independent authority, away from the city.

The City Council has been rebuffed by legislators in an attempt to raise a local meals tax to help the Carolina Panthers pay for renovations to Bank of America Stadium. And Foxx and council members are in a nearly yearlong stalemate over the fate of a proposed $926 million capital plan, and a proposed streetcar that would be built with property tax dollars.

“Let’s face it. We are in a period of great uncertainty,” said Foxx, who lobbied council members to hire Carlee over Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble and Assistant City Manager Ruffin Hall. “The Great Recession shook a bit of the swagger from us. We’re steadily working to build it back, and the need for the city to be constantly communicating with the public is a critical piece of how our city will move forward.”

Foxx said the city has historically operated from the top-down, with big business and political leaders joining to chart a course for Charlotte. He said there are more people wanting their voices heard today, such as neighborhood groups, and that he hopes Carlee can reach them.

It’s also uncertain whether Foxx, one of Carlee’s biggest supporters, will be in office. The mayor is reportedly being considered for transportation secretary by the Obama administration. Foxx has declined to comment about the Department of Transportation job, though he said in an interview last week he will announce whether he will run for a third term, possibly in the next few days.

Carlee’s total compensation will be $290,000 a year, a 15 percent increase over what Walton last made. He will also have the use of a city car.

He and the city agreed to a three-year contract, which gives Carlee a six-month payout if he is terminated without cause during his first 30 months. It’s the first time the city has had a manager working with a contract.

On Feb. 25, the council and Foxx voted 11-1 to hire Carlee. Democrat Patrick Cannon, the mayor pro tem, voted against the hire.

Carlee, who is renting in uptown with his wife, Emily Cross, said he is OK taking a more visible role.

“There is an expectation that I reach out and establish strong relationships with the community,” Carlee said. “They said I need to help people understand what the city’s policies are.”

Experience in Virginia

Carlee’s most recent job was chief operating officer with the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C. Charlotte officials focused most on his 30 years working in Arlington County, where he was manager from 2001 to 2009.

As manager, Carlee championed many of the growth strategies that Charlotte staff members have supported.

He pushed for bike paths and to make the city friendlier for pedestrians. He continued a plan to cluster commercial and residential development around the city’s two Metro lines. He created a plan to include more affordable housing in new residential developments.

Carlee also pushed for building a streetcar line along Columbia Pike, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. The streetcar hasn’t yet been built.

Under the plan, it will be paid for with local, state and federal money. The local share, $140 million, will come from a number of sources, according to Arlington County.

Some council members admire how Arlington County has grown. But there are some significant differences between Arlington and Charlotte.

Charlotte is a prosperous, vibrant city. But its wealth can’t compare with Arlington.

Arlington, home to the Pentagon, lies just south of Washington, D.C. Boosted by a surge in federal spending – especially among defense contractors – Arlington is the nation’s third-wealthiest county, with a median household income of $104,600. By contrast, the median income for a family of four in Charlotte is $64,100. (Arlington County may now face tougher times because of the federal budget cuts mandated by the sequester).

The median home value in Arlington is $525,000, compared with $153,000 for the Charlotte area. Roughly 70 percent of residents have at least a college degree. In Mecklenburg, it’s just under 41 percent.

Buoyed by a large and vibrant commercial base, the county has one of the lowest property tax rates in Virginia. Charlotte’s property tax rate is among the highest in the state.

Managing Arlington is arguably easier than running Charlotte – a city with more poverty and more resistance to government spending.

In addition, a higher number of residents in Arlington either work in the public sector or indirectly through government contracts.

“Local government is almost invisible (in Arlington),” said Stephen Fuller, a George Mason professor who is an expert on the Washington, D.C., regional economy. “Every once in a while something goes on that people get exercised about, but nobody gets too exercised about it because life is pretty good. When your taxes are so far below what other people pay, it’s hard to complain about much.”

Foxx said he isn’t worried that policies and skills that worked in Arlington won’t translate to Charlotte. He added that Carlee’s time at the International City/County Management Association “exposed him to communities all over the country and world.”

Charlotte City Council member John Autry, a Democrat, said council members were concerned during the interview process whether success in Arlington would translate to Charlotte.

“It was a ‘He had this kind of success, and we are different like this,’ ” Autry said. “Some of those questions were put to him. It was back and forth, back and forth. We had him in there for one hour and 45 minutes. It was not softball stuff.”

J. Walter Tejada was first elected to the Arlington County Board in 2003 and worked with Carlee for six years. He describes Carlee has being a “Southern gentleman” – he grew up in Birmingham, Ala. – and as being skilled in dealing with politicians and the public.

“He has the ability to (sell things),” Tejada said. “But there is a balance to strike. Ron would know when it’s his time to be upfront with the public, and when it should be the elected officials.”

Arlington Board member Mary Hynes said Carlee did not defer to politicians for spreading government’s message. “He was very concerned about getting the county’s message out and, in my perspective, in building the case for doing something,” Hynes said.

Budget challenges await

Both Tejada and Hynes said they believe Carlee’s time working in Arlington’s Department of Human Services helped shape Carlee’s view of how government can help people. Carlee acknowledges Arlington is wealthier than Charlotte, but said he doesn’t think that makes a difference in how to govern.

“If you are homeless and hungry you are homeless and hungry no matter where you are,” Carlee said.

Tejada and Hynes said they believe one of Carlee’s biggest accomplishments was creating a plan to include more affordable housing, as real estate prices soared during the first half of last decade.

Arlington County had been sued by developers who successfully argued that the county’s affordable housing requests were, in fact, requirements. In 2005, Carlee said, he helped forge a compromise in which developers would still be required to set aside some units for workforce housing, but at an amount that was acceptable to builders. Developers could also opt out of the requirement for a fee.

“We forged a compromise that the amount of affordable housing would be fixed,” Carlee said. “We wanted economically diverse neighborhoods.”

The city of Charlotte has a long-running goal of dispersing affordable housing, and Foxx and council members would like developers to include more low-income units in median income neighborhoods.

Charlotte has so far only offered voluntary incentives for developers to do so.

Perhaps Carlee’s biggest challenge will be finding a way to move forward the capital plan, which has been stalled since June. The main roadblock: The council is divided on whether to build a streetcar with property taxes.

Carlee said he’s trying to learn about the opposition to the streetcar. He said he has learned that many residents support transit, but they don’t support spending more money than the transit sales tax generates.

“Here in Charlotte there is an issue around public trust that is caught up in the sales tax for transportation and the property tax,” Carlee said. “I was looking at it from the outside and said, ‘Who cares, it’s all tax dollars?’ But there is a whole tax philosophy that’s unique to Charlotte.”

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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