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Mecklenburg's first female county manager pledges new era of trust

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/17/19/21/t5ND8.Em.138.jpg|319
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Dena Diorio stands at the podium after the Meckelburg County Commission named her the new county manager. At left is her husband, Robert Diorio.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/17/19/13/15VJTF.Em.138.jpg|316
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Meckelnburg County commissioners voted Tuesday to hire assistant County Manager Dena Diorio as Mecklenburg’s first female manager.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/17/18/46/1uwQkd.Em.138.jpg|316
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Meckelnburg County commissioners voted Tuesday to hire assistant County Manager Dena Diorio as Mecklenburg’s first female manager.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/17/12/39/Gwfzp.Em.138.jpeg|371
    - Mecklenburg County
    Dena Diorio

More Information

  • Diorio named new Mecklenburg County manager
  • Editorial: Stability at the top for Mecklenburg
  • About Dena Diorio

    Age: 51.

    Education: Columbus College, State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Columbia University (School of International and Public Affairs).

    Work experience: Assistant county manager, finance director, Mecklenburg County (2007-present); finance and human resources director, Danbury, Conn. (2002-2007); director of Office of Policy and Management, Stamford, Conn. (1998-2002); executive deputy director of New York City mayor’s operations office (1997-1998); director of New York City mayor’s office of city legislative affairs (1995-1997); deputy director, deputy assistant director, supervising analyst for New York City mayor’s operations office (1990-1995); financial analyst for New York City sanitation department; financial analyst for New York City general services department (1988-1989).

    Family: husband, Robert Diorio, (married for 22 years).



Recruiters for Mecklenburg County spent months scouring the country for a new county manager, but on Tuesday county commissioners didn’t have to go far to hire Assistant County Manager Dena Diorio as Mecklenburg’s first female manager.

Commissioners voted unanimously to make Diorio the fifth person to hold the county’s top post.

She replaces longtime County Manager Harry Jones, who hired Diorio in 2007 as finance director, the county’s chief financial officer.

After the board fired Jones in May, interim Manager Bobbie Shields elevated Diorio to assistant county manager. In addition to finances, she’s overseen the tax assessor and tax collector, and compliance.

Now, starting Jan. 1, she’ll preside over a county staff of nearly 5,000 employees and a $1.7 billion budget. It will be her first stint managing a government.

After the vote, Diorio, 51, thanked the commissioners for their confidence and told them “becoming the first woman county manager is a true honor and privilege. I am committed to working every day for the residents of this county.”

In a brief news conference, she told reporters she’s wanted to be a county manager since she started in public administration 25 years ago.

She said Jones texted her Tuesday, recalling that when he interviewed Diorio for finance director she told him her goal of becoming a county manger.

“You’ve succeeded,” Jones wrote. “Congratulations.”

Diorio, labeled by several commissioners as a “change agent,” said she would continue the work of rebuilding public trust begun under Shields.

“We’ve had some missteps over the past few years,” she said. “I want residents to have a high degree of confidence that what we do is efficient and effective – and above board all the time.”

She also wants to improve communications between the board and county staff.

“We need to have more open dialogue,” Diorio said. “We tend to take too long to bring information to the board and they find out from other sources. They don’t like to be surprised. So we’ll be providing information more frequently … even if we don’t have all the answers.”

Diorio was hired just in time to oversee the new budget. She said she will look at changes in the process and make sure that commissioners have all the information they need “to make informed decisions.”

‘A coherent vision’

Under her contract approved Tuesday, Diorio will earn a total yearly package of nearly $248,000. She’ll get an annual base salary of $228,000, $6,700 each year for health insurance and a $1,100 monthly car allowance. She’ll also get $15,000 in deferred income each year, board Chairman Trevor Fuller said.

His final year, Jones’ total compensation was $297,795, with a base salary of $246,138. After Shields was named interim manager, he was given a 10 percent raise on top of his $203,000 salary.

Tuesday, Fuller told Diorio that the board was united behind her.

“You are in the best position to chart a new direction and execute a coherent vision,” he said.

In an interview, Fuller said Diorio wasn’t a part of Jones’ “inner clique” and is willing “to change the culture of county government that many of us feel is needed.”

“It is clear to us that Dena has her own ideas about how things ought to be done,” he added. “She articulated a vision for the organization that was consistent with the vast majority of commissioners – she’s willing and able to make the changes that need to be made.”

Diorio came to Charlotte after stints in two Connecticut cities. She was finance and human resources director in Danbury, Conn., for nearly five years and and the director of the policy and management office in Stamford for four years.

Before then, she worked several jobs in New York City, including eight years in the mayor’s office, serving as the mayoral liaison to city departments and adviser to senior government officials on policy and programs from 1990 to 1995. For two years, she managed and promoted New York City’s legislative programs and spent a year helping prepare the city’s $32 billion budget and $5 billion capital budget.

Shields was a candidate for the permanent job but didn’t make the final five. He told the Observer last week that he plans to retire once the new manager is installed. He’s worked for the county for 27 years.

Tuesday, he said he was excited about the selection, describing Diorio as a workhorse.

“I have piled stuff on Dena, and she has taken it in stride,” Shields said. “She has come back and said ‘I want more.’ 

Diorio said she will bring her own brand of leadership to the job. As finance director, she won respect for helping secure the county’s AAA bond rating and putting the county on a debt diet during the recent recession

“It’s a new era,” she told reporters. “I’m me, I’m not Harry. I’m not any county manager before me. … I’m going to lead the county the way I think makes more sense with everybody.”

Public input unnecessary

During the search, Fuller complained publicly that the process lacked transparency, particularly after the search committee began to interview the 17 original candidates. He said the full board needed to be involved in all interviewing.

Tuesday, he said the search could have been done without some members feeling excluded. In the end, the full board interviewed only the five finalists.

Yet commissioner Pat Cotham, who chaired the search committee, said Fuller voted twice for a smaller committee to oversee the process with recruiters and bring to the full board three to five final candidates. Cotham, a former executive recruiter, said the process worked “perfectly and on time.”

Fuller also openly called for public input into the manager selection. But, he said, after commissioners finished two days of interviewing five finalists last Saturday, the board knew they had the right woman for the job – and public engagement wasn’t necessary.

During those interviews, the list of five was whittled to two – Diorio and another woman. Fuller and other commissioners declined to name the other woman or where she worked. Fuller said he hadn’t expected the board to settle on an internal candidate, but that a consensus developed quickly “that Dena was the right choice.”

During a straw vote, it became clear that the full board was “all in” for Diorio, commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said.

Changing the culture

Hiring Diorio should end nearly a year of tumult that began even before Jones was fired and escalated after the board voted 6-2 to terminate him.

Jones and some commissioners had developed strained relations after a troubled revaluation and high-profile problems with the county’s social services and mental health agencies.

After Cotham was elected chair, she began to recruit other commissioners to put pressure on Jones to retire or be fired. She said she’d campaigned on change and felt replacing Jones was the only way to do it.

On May 7, the board voted 6-2 to fire Jones. Democrat George Dunlap was absent.

In the end, Fuller acknowledged firing Jones was necessary for change.

“I do think we needed to get here, because as I have said, I thought we needed to chart a clear and new direction,” he said. “I didn’t think that was possible under the previous administration.”

“But it should not have taken this much turmoil. It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

Public interest about the search was constant.

Last Friday, Cotham was at an event and approached by a business leader about the search.

“He asked how the search was going, and I told him ‘fine,’ ” she said. “Then he said, ‘I’m looking forward to welcoming a new brother into the ring.’

“And I thought, ‘Hmmm, you may be welcoming a new sister.’ 

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