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Some commissioners feel excluded from new county manager search

Some Mecklenburg County commissioners are upset that they are not getting enough say in hiring a new county manager and that the process is taking too long.

Commissioners fired longtime manager Harry Jones on May 7.

At the time, Chairwoman Pat Cotham didn’t want to prolong firing Jones because she felt his successor needed to be in place and acclimated in time to preside over a new budget starting in January.

The board agreed to a search committee to oversee the process. Cotham appointed herself and commissioners Karen Bentley, Bill James and Vilma Leake because they are board veterans and bring different expertise to the process.

Commissioners in June said they wanted a new manager hired by Oct. 15.

Yet less than a month to that unofficial deadline, other commissioners are concerned that the process appears to be “bogged down” and that they – and the community – haven’t been involved in defining expectations for a new county manager.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller first raised the matter at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

“I was concerned that we’re going to be into December and we won’t have a permanent county manager when we said we want one in place before the next budgeting cycle,” Fuller said.

“We knew it’d be tight. But here we’re about to begin a new cycle and there’s no county manager in sight.”

Aside from setting policy and a yearly county budget, the board’s most critical function is to hire and oversee the county manager.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Cotham told commissioners that the county’s search firm, Coleman Lew + Associates of Charlotte, has started assembling a list of candidates.

Before the search firm posted the job on Aug. 2, Cotham said Coleman Lew interviewed her, James and Bentley to create a profile of candidates.

“I feel confident that you will be pleasantly surprised” with the candidates, said Cotham, a former executive recruiter.

Thursday, she said she’s called for a special meeting Tuesday to update the board on the search. She said Oct. 15 “was just a goal.”

“As a recruiter, I never would have agreed to that,” she said. “This will take as long as it takes to find the right person. We found that the staff is perfectly capable of building a budget.”

‘Important to be inclusive’

Fuller and commissioner George Dunlap said they thought all board members would be consulted on their expectations for the new manager.

Dunlap said he’d proposed in the beginning that the whole board oversee the process. He also wanted community input.

“When it comes time to interview candidates, we will meet candidates who met the smaller committee’s profile,” Dunlap said Thursday. “There are times when the board agrees more than it disagrees. So it’s possible that we all would have agreed on the same expectations of the new county manager.

“But when you include all commissioners, at least everybody has a buy-in. Everybody has an opportunity to say what they want in the manager. ...

“If we pick someone in October, it will be a rushed process and I don’t think people will be happy with the end result.”

Thursday, Cotham said she worked with Chris Peek, the county’s human resources director, to write a job description.

Cotham said most of the job description came from the state statute that defines a county manager’s duties.

She said she told Peek and the search firm that she wanted candidates from comparable-sized counties and didn’t want the firm just talking to administrators looking for work.

She wants someone with at least 10 years of management experience.

“When you advertise you only get the 5 percent who are looking for a job,” Cotham said. “You’re missing the 90 percent who are doing a good job. I wanted them to be called.”

She said she was confident in the process and in Coleman Lew’s ability to find a good slate of candidates.

The city of Charlotte took a vastly different approach when it recently hired a new city manager, using an online survey to gather input from residents and asking all City Council members to weigh in on expectations.

The entire council finalized and approved a candidate profile. Before hiring Ron Carlee, the full council interviewed finalists, and the city held a public forum and reception to give residents a chance to meet them.

Carl Stenberg, a public administration professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government, said he advises counties – and municipalities – to interview elected officials and “community stakeholders” to determine future needs and priorities and how the county is doing to meet them.

“It’s important to be inclusive in the process,” Stenberg said. “It’s time-consuming. But it’s well worth the extra effort to get a broad range of views.”

Cotham said she has no problem with involving residents in the hiring.

‘Most important hire’

What concerns Fuller and Dunlap is that those views are narrowed to three commissioners – since Leake wasn’t interviewed.

Dunlap said many on the board wanted community involvement.

“There was ample opportunity – with phone calls, emails – to get that engagement,” he said. “But there’s already a process in place.”

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour is not on the search committee but defended the process.

He said he’s held town hall-style meetings in his District 5 and answered questions about the search. He added other commissioners could have done the same.

But Fuller said the search firm is advertising a candidate profile that wasn’t approved by the whole board.

He said he’s troubled that the board hadn’t received any updates for weeks on the search.

Though the full board will approve the hire, he said he was startled to learn that the job had been posted without all commissioners voting on a candidate profile.

“This is the most important hire we make,” he said. “I just don’t see that there’s a process in place. There’s no community input – and little board input.

“It’s not the search firm’s job to select a new manager. It is our job.”

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