Recruiters for Mecklenburg County spent months scouring the country for a new county manager, but on Tuesday county commissioners didnt have to go far to hire Assistant County Manager Dena Diorio as Mecklenburgs first female manager.
Commissioners voted unanimously to make Diorio the fifth person to hold the countys top post.
She replaces longtime County Manager Harry Jones, who hired Diorio in 2007 as finance director, the countys chief financial officer.
After the board fired Jones in May, interim Manager Bobbie Shields elevated Diorio to assistant county manager. In addition to finances, shes overseen the tax assessor and tax collector, and compliance.
Now, starting Jan. 1, shell 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 shes 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.
Youve 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.
Weve 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 dont like to be surprised. So well be providing information more frequently even if we dont 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. Shell get an annual base salary of $228,000, $6,700 each year for health insurance and a $1,100 monthly car allowance. Shell 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 wasnt 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 shes 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 mayors 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 Citys legislative programs and spent a year helping prepare the citys $32 billion budget and $5 billion capital budget.
Shields was a candidate for the permanent job but didnt make the final five. He told the Observer last week that he plans to retire once the new manager is installed. Hes 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 countys AAA bond rating and putting the county on a debt diet during the recent recession
Its a new era, she told reporters. Im me, Im not Harry. Im not any county manager before me. Im 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 wasnt 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 hadnt 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 countys 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 shed 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 didnt think that was possible under the previous administration.
But it should not have taken this much turmoil. It doesnt 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, Im 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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