Back in May, after orchestrating the firing of Mecklenburg manager Harry Jones, county commission chair Pat Cotham explained that she had done the deed quickly so a new manager could be in place for the next county budgeting cycle. A month later, commissioners reinforced that notion, saying they wanted to have Jones’ successor chosen by Oct. 15.
It was a good goal, because a new county manager needs time to acclimate to the job before the annual budgeting process begins in earnest in January. But October has arrived, and the search for a manager is clearly headed a page or two deeper into the 2013 calendar.
Commissioner Trevor Fuller told the editorial board Wednesday that on Oct. 17, the board will receive the names and applications of the dozen or so candidates who’ve made the first cut of the county’s search firm, Coleman Lew & Associates of Charlotte. With winnowing and debating and finalists to come, it’s getting difficult to imagine a new manager being chosen before December.
And what of the Oct. 15 deadline? That was “just a goal,” Cotham told the board last month.
No, that goal meant something. County departments are currently being asked to gather information about their budgets in advance of submitting requests to the county manager (for now, that’s interim manager Bobbie Shields). This could have been a perfect time for the new manager to become familiar with departments, their needs and their personnel. That’s why Cotham and commissioners offered the “best by” date they did.
So what happened? We’re not sure. Cotham didn’t return a message from the editorial board Wednesday. Some of Cotham’s fellow commissioners are feeling equally in the dark. At a board meeting last month, Fuller and others expressed concern not only with the slowness of the search, but the lack of inclusiveness surrounding the process.
A particular point of contention: The search firm has interviewed just a handful of board members, including Cotham, about what they’d like in a new manager. Fuller, along with commissioner George Dunlap, felt the whole board should have been asked for that kind of critical preliminary input.
These are not new complaints with Cotham. In less than a year as board chair, she’s developed a reputation for plowing ahead on her own with county matters, and her choreographing of the Jones dismissal involved quite a bit of secrecy. Cotham rightly argued then that her covert operations were politically necessary, because tipping dissenting commissioners off would have jeopardized the firing.
Finding a new manager demands a different approach, and there are promising signs that Cotham might be loosening her grip on the process. Fuller tells the editorial board that the search firm seems amenable to giving all commissioners – not just the four-member search committee Cotham appointed – the applications of candidates who made and didn’t make the first cut. Also, the public is invited on Oct. 15 to give its input, thanks to a request from Fuller and commissioner Dumont Clarke.
From there, commissioners should move briskly, thoughtfully and collaboratively toward a hire. Choosing a county manager is one of the board’s primary functions. Each commissioner – and through them the constituents they represent – should be given a real voice in the process.
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