During his 27 years in local government, Bobbie Shields has worked with little fanfare on some of Mecklenburg County’s most significant projects, including the new uptown baseball stadium and the Little Sugar Creek greenway expansion.
But the firing of former County Manager Harry Jones last week has thrust Shields into a larger, high-profile role as interim county manager.
He’ll have influence over upcoming debates on the budget, reshaping the tax assessor’s office after a bungled 2011 property revaluation, and restoring public confidence in county government.
For Shields, however, the job comes with a catch.
He must work with a divided board of county commissioners, which is still split over Jones’ dismissal. At a meeting Tuesday, the board’s factions traded barbs, accusing each other unethical behavior, racism and sexism.
Shields, playing the role of peacemaker, was criticized by one side and told to butt out of the conversation by the other.
Commissioner Bill James described Shields’ predicament: “When you get caught between the Bloods and the Crips, that’s not a good thing.”
Shields has signaled he wants to be considered for the permanent job. But some commissioners have said they want to take county government in a new direction, and Shields may be viewed as too closely linked to the past.
In his first extensive interview since he became interim county manager, Shields told the Observer he is unfazed by board in-fighting.
He said the raucous commission meeting was “good” for the board.
“They were getting it out,” Shields said. “Until you get things out, you can’t know what someone else is thinking.”
Shields praised Jones, saying he built a solid foundation for his successor to build upon.
But those who know Shields predict he will try to put his own stamp on county government. “He’s an independent thinker,” commissioner George Dunlap said. “The budget he presents won’t be the same one Harry Jones would have presented. It will be a budget he is comfortable with.”
Climbing county ladder
Commissioners and other civic leaders described Shields, 59, as methodical, detailed-oriented and a problem-solver.
They said his introverted personality contrasts with the outspoken, charismatic Jones.
“He listens a lot more than he talks,” former commissioner Harold Cogdell said.
Shields, a native of Halifax County in Eastern North Carolina, grew up on a family farm picking tobacco, cotton and peanuts.
He relocated to Charlotte in 1975 to work at Duke Energy, where he helped design power plants. Shields moved into local government in 1986 when the county hired him as a deputy engineer.
Shields climbed the government ladder, and in 2002 he was named county general manager, where he served as one of Jones top lieutenants, overseeing economic development, parks and recreation, land use and environmental services.
Shields is credited with helping craft the complicated land swap that opened the way for an uptown ballpark.
Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, which promotes uptown, said Shields guided the project through “so many dead ends and road blocks.”
“Bobbie does not get ruffled,” Smith said. “During debates, Bobbie will stick to the facts.”
As interim county manager, Shields is in charge of a $1.3 billion budget and roughly 4,400 workers.
Shields has wasted little time using his new authority. Just this week, Shields announced a management shakeup. He promoted Finance Director Dena Diorio to assistant county manager and hired local child advocate Peggy Eagan to run the troubled Department of Social Services.
Shields has also made more subtle moves. He changed the title of the county’s three top executives under him from general manager to assistant county manager, saying it more clearly reflects their duties.
But major challenges lie ahead.
“He hasn’t had to deal with the political part of the job,” Dunlap said.
‘New blood … new direction’
Shields has already come under criticism from one of his bosses.
At a meeting earlier this week, commissioners debated a proposal to hire retired BellSouth executive Krista Tillman to help guide the county in the search for a new manager and to lead a study on the efficiency of operations.
Shields tried to reassure commissioners that Tillman would not act as de facto “super manager,” saying that he had spoken with her about a limited role.
Dunlap, who complained that board Chairwoman Pat Cotham did not inform him about the idea, demanded she answer why the county needed to hire Tillman. When Shields attempted to intervene, Dunlap cut him off, saying “This is a board discussion.”
Cotham suggested to Shields that he acted prematurely by speaking with Tillman before the full board discussed hiring the consultant.
Cotham and Shields disagreed over his role as interim tax assessor.
Last November, Mecklenburg Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander resigned after he became the target of taxpayer anger about overvalued properties. An outside firm found flaws in the 2011 appraisal.
County officials asked Shields to take over as tax assessor until a permanent replacement was hired.
But when Shields was named interim county manager, Cotham said she asked him to step down as tax assessor. Shields refused. Cotham said she has doubts about whether Shields can do the tax assessor job effectively while he is interim county manager.
She said commissioners picked Shields as interim manager based on a “gut feeling” he would perform well. Assistant County Manager John McGillicuddy was also discussed for the interim job, she said.
Asked if Shields has a real shot at the permanent county manager’s post, Cotham said, “I don’t know.”
“He has talked about retiring, so I don’t know how long he wants to work,” she said.
James, the commissioner, said Shields has good qualities, but a slate of new commissioners was elected in November after promising voters they would change county government. “There is a consensus that people are looking for new blood and a new direction,” James said.
Ready to lead
Bad blood among commissioners could impact the quantity and quality of candidates willing to apply for the manager’s job, said Cogdell, the former commissioner.
“If you have a fractured board, many quality candidates will think twice about it,” Cogdell said.
Shields said he isn’t worried. He said he has been long acquainted with board members and will emphasize relationships with commissioners and employees during his tenure as interim manager. “The good thing about being in an interim role is I can test-drive this,” Shields said. “I am very much interested in the best outcome for Mecklenburg County and if the best outcome happens to be me providing some leadership to Mecklenburg County, I am ready to do so.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027
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