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County manager search committee starts narrowing list of candidates

The Mecklenburg County Commission committee charged with recommending a final slate of county manager candidates started the winnowing process Monday, interviewing two applicants among a longer list.

Board Chairwoman Pat Cotham, who also chairs the search committee, wouldn’t say how many candidates the committee will ultimately interview this week, or what it is costing the county to bring them in.

Last month, she said that the county-hired Charlotte search firm had come up with a slate of 16 but wouldn’t confirm if that was still the case.

She said she asked Chris Peek, the county’s human resources director, about the cost. “He just said they have the money,” Cotham said. “This is an important job, and if we’re going to do a nationwide search, we’ve got to bring people in.

“Some are flying in; some are driving.”

The county has been without a permanent county manager since May, when the board fired longtime manager Harry Jones. Since then, interim manager Bobbie Shields has been overseeing operations.

On Monday, the committee assembled in an office building in Ballantyne Corporate Park for privacy. The four members – Cotham, Bill James, Karen Bentley and Vilma Leake – met in open session briefly to vote to go into closed session in another suite of offices on the opposite side of the building.

It took more than four hours for the committee to interview two candidates, James said.

The interviews, he said, will likely continue through the week.

The process, which already has grown testy, was challenged again late last week, over the weekend and Monday by commissioner Trevor Fuller, who charged that the full board never authorized the committee to interview the larger slate of candidates.

In October, it took a special meeting and a 6-3 vote from the full board to revise a 10-year-old policy to exclude the five noncommittee commissioners from closed sessions on the candidates. The revision also excludes them from receiving information on the first batch of applicants.

The board agreed that the committee would bring to the full board a list of three to five candidates to interview.

Cotham said then that the search firm, Charlotte-based Coleman Lew + Associates, had promised candidates that their resumes would only be shared with committee members.

But Fuller said the full board should be conducting all interviews.

“I didn’t expect that the committee was going to do interviews with these people,” Fuller said. “There was never any discussion that I can recall, or that is reflected in the minutes, that the search committee would be interviewing candidates for the purpose of narrowing the list.”

Cotham and James said the committee is following Coleman Lew’s recommended process.

But Fuller said the firm is not charged with making the search rules, “they’re simply supposed to be carrying out the board’s will.” He said the process gives the appearance that the search “is shrouded in secrecy.”

“I give them the benefit of the doubt that they have the best of intentions. But they can’t just go out and do this thing on their own in all our names.”

James called Fuller’s argument “nonsensical.” He said the committee is merely following the board’s charge.

“We’re doing exactly what the Board of County Commissioners asked us to do back in June: Go through and evaluate candidates,” James said. “When we’re done, we’ll come back with three to five candidates for the full board to consider.”

He said the committee couldn’t “thoroughly” evaluate all candidates – to narrow the list – without interviewing them.

“How can you evaluate someone without talking to them?” James asked. “Trevor couldn’t live under those constraints. He would expect to be able to talk to people. For whatever reason, he doesn’t trust the committee, but keep in mind he voted for it.”

Cotham said the process will lead to a list of the “best-qualified” candidates.

“When we recommend these people to the full board, we will be able to recommend them with more of what we saw and what we heard them say,” she said. “The end result is that we are going to be able to give the full board great candidates from which to choose.”

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