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An unsettling, but necessary, day for Mecklenburg

Any sudden change in leadership sparks upheaval. Any controversial termination divides people.

But the removal Tuesday night of Harry Jones as Mecklenburg County manager was not sudden, and should not be controversial. Though Jones achieved his share of accomplishments over 21 years with the county, his failures to lead effectively have mounted in recent years, and became too numerous to accept. He had lost credibility with commissioners and the public, and Mecklenburg County government’s future is brighter today following commissioners’ 6-2 vote to terminate his contract.

Jones’ undoing stemmed from a few different elements. The public lost confidence in him in part because of specific inappropriate actions he took. But two other ingredients were at least as much to blame: His repeated failure to respond effectively to crises that developed below him; and the culture he created in which he regarded himself and his leadership team as above accountability. Though the county manager reports to the board of county commissioners and ultimately the public, Jones over the years developed an insularity that he seemed sure could never be pierced.

That manifested itself in November, when Jones reportedly became belligerent with commissioners – his supervisors – when they gave him no raise. Jones had sought, among other things, a 4.5 percent hike for his “exemplary performance.”

But it has been many years since Jones’ performance was exemplary.

For instance: Mecklenburg’s 2011 property revaluation was an outright failure. The county put erroneous tax values on a high percentage of properties and had to spend millions unearthing the problems. The legislature is expected to pass a bill forcing the county to refund millions more to property owners who were overcharged.

After important questions had been raised about the revaluation, Jones dismissed an independent audit of the situation as “neither necessary nor appropriate.” He said the review would serve no purpose. Commissioners called for the audit anyway, and it proved vital.

Or take Grayce Crockett. Jones authorized a $63,000 legal settlement with the former mental health director upon her resignation. But his administration misled commissioners and the public, saying the money was paid out for accrued vacation and sick time. Jones later apologized.

Jones displayed a similar pattern when accounting problems arose with a contractor, Mecklenburg Open Door, and with the Department of Social Services’ Giving Tree program. His response in these cases and others was tardy, defensive and opaque.

In other cases, Jones showed bad judgment and had to apologize each time. When a citizen wrote to him about accounting failures at DSS, Jones tracked down the man’s employer and asked about him. After a committee met about the public library’s future, Jones fired off an intemperate email to those involved. When commissioners were raising questions about Crockett, Jones inappropriately publicized private records of one of the commissioners.

These are not the actions of a leader equipped to guide Mecklenburg County through challenging times.

A county government as large as Mecklenburg’s is going to make mistakes. The next county manager needs to be willing to confront those mistakes aggressively and fix them, and to be transparent with the public in doing so.

Tuesday’s events will be unsettling for many. They were, however, sadly long overdue.

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