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Harry Jones tries new career as controversy from old one fades

Little known fact about Harry Jones: He speaks fluent Donald Duck.

He’d use it effectively to disarm and entertain children of Mecklenburg County staffers, who Jones directed as county manager for 12 years. He’d use it on his own four children and five grandchildren.

Jones wants to use the voice to draw smiles from sick children at a Charlotte children’s hospital where he’s applied to volunteer. But that work may have to compete with a new career for Jones: a consulting venture he’s engineering.

Called Harry Jones Consulting, he’s putting himself up for hire to help county and city governments “achieve some of the things we were successful in doing here in Mecklenburg County,” he said in a phone interview Friday.

“I am proud of what we accomplished here. It’s why so many communities came to visit us, or called, to see how we did things.”

He’d also like to help companies and nonprofits develop leadership.

During his tenure as Mecklenburg’s county manager that began in 2000, Jones ultimately oversaw a staff of 4,400 and a $1.3 billion budget.

He was praised for building a good team of managers. He was credited as a major player in many county projects, including the recently opened Romare Bearden Park uptown and bringing minor league baseball back to Charlotte.

Early in his career, he created a scorecard to evaluate county services and make government more efficient. The built jails and a $148 million, nine-story county courthouse, marking the first time since 1970 that all courts were housed in one building.

During the recession, Jones and county commissioners launched a new system to pay for construction and control county debt, preserving Mecklenburg’s AAA bond rating.

“I think I can help other counties and cities develop some of the things that made us so effective,” Jones said.

He stayed at the helm after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2011. After treatment, the cancer was in remission.

It’s a story he’d like to tell across the country. “I have a compelling story about my healing, about my battle against pancreatic cancer for the past 21 months,” said Jones, who turns 64 in two weeks. “I want to give people hope … and help them get control of their lives.”

Feeling no bitterness

In addition to helping other governments with strategies, Jones said he’s available to fill in as an interim manager or department head of governments that have lost executives.

He knows about that, too.

Last May, after several well-reported missteps with the boards of commissioners that he served, the board fired him.

In front of a large audience in the board chamber and on government TV, Jones was asked by board Chair Pat Cotham to leave the dais and rejected his request to make remarks. She told him his personal possessions in his office would be boxed and taken to his home.

Jones said Friday he hasn’t been back to the office since that night, though he has had lunch with some former staffers – including interim manager Bobbie Shields – and talked to “a couple of them from time to time” on the phone.

“But we don’t talk county business,” he said. “I talked to Bobbie after he was named interim and told him ‘it’s your operation, I’m out of it. But if you need me, I’m here.’ ”

Shields, he said, has not called for advice.

His cancer, he said, has freed him from fear of dying, sickness and pain.

“I think my sickness helped me to understand that being faithful to God was very important,” he said. “That freedom made everything in my life much easier to cope with and deal with.”

The first month after his firing, he said he “just chilled, just decompressed.”

He felt no bitterness. “Not even the slightest anger entered into the equation,” he said. “How could I be angry while living in one of the best communities in the country that I played a part in building?

“I am a happy man.”

His sickness and subsequent firing gave him another form of freedom: “the freedom to be spontaneous.”

Without the stresses and controversies of his county job, he’s closer to his family – often calling his children who live in Charlotte to go eat pizza, or taking his grandchildren for ice cream.

He sleeps late when he wants, and plays golf twice a week. “I’m getting worse,” he said. “I may have to go back to playing once a month.”

Making a sick kid smile

He may have no choice if his consulting business takes off.

Jones is refining a website. His logo is in purple – the color that supports people with pancreatic cancer and research to find a cure.

He has spent the past month calling business owners, asking how they started their ventures and about pitfalls.

Jones said he’s also been approached to run for a seat on county board. “They asked me to consider it,” he said. “I love this community and if there is anyway I can help it, I will.”

He hasn’t made a decision.

“It would be made with my wife and children,” he said. “At this point, that’s not something they would support.”

Then there’s the volunteer work at the children’s hospital. He’s still waiting to hear about his application.

“I’ve always told my wife that’s what I wanted to do after I retired,” he said. “Read kids stories, or do whatever I can to make a sick kid smile.”

Including using his Donald Duck voice.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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