In the turbulent sea that is Mecklenburg County government, the nine commissioners who toss this way and that could use a steady anchor. They got one Tuesday night when they named Dena Diorio to be the new county manager.
The commissioners, normally a fractured bunch, voted unanimously to name Diorio as the successor to Harry Jones, who was fired in May in a 6-2 vote. Diorio appears to be a shrewd choice who needs nothing more than commissioners to allow her to succeed.
Anyone who follows Mecklenburg County government closely has taken note of Diorio in her six-plus years here, most of which she spent as finance director. She stands out for her authoritative grasp of her subject matter and her ability to communicate it in a no-nonsense way. Frequently at meetings and retreats, Diorio will take the floor amid bickering or confusion, calmly explain the facts of a complicated situation and get the conversation back on track.
Two episodes especially demonstrate Diorio’s leadership skills and financial acumen. She took the lead in putting Mecklenburg on a “debt diet” by helping to create a fund limiting commissioners’ capital spending each year. Rather than passing large bond packages and figuring out later how to repay the debt, the county now sets its annual borrowing so interest payments are covered from already-dedicated revenue. The move slowed spiraling interest payments that ate away at operating money for schools, social services and other needs.
Diorio also stabilized the Department of Social Services’ books after repeated financial miscues. Mecklenburg’s largest department once kept its accounting separate from the rest of the county. After repeated breaches, commissioners gave Diorio oversight, and DSS finances have stayed out of the news since.
Commissioners conducted a national search and chose Diorio over four other finalists who were all external candidates. We wish board chair Trevor Fuller, who had previously expressed concerns about transparency, had let the public meet the finalists. The City Council and school board did that when hiring new leaders, and the community benefited. Public meetings could have let Diorio assuage concerns of residents who regard her as too much of a Harry Jones lieutenant in a county government with too many lapses in recent years.
Diorio is an independent thinker who has maintained her outsider perspective. She is also a straight-shooter who shows little flair for the dramatic. That’s critical with a group of commissioners with a penchant for drama. Diorio would do well to continue to minimize her involvement with the commissioners’ politics.
There’s more than enough substantive issues to chew on. Most immediately, Diorio needs to ensure that repairs to a botched property revaluation stay on track and that property tax refunds are issued promptly. And she needs to negotiate the transfer of the county’s mental health services to Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions. Mecklenburg should be reimbursed for the start-up costs it incurred in creating MeckLINK and have some voice in how Mecklenburg residents are treated going forward. And, of course, she will quickly move into drafting a county budget for next year.
Mecklenburg County government has been through a choppy few years, and many in the public have lost trust. It’s Diorio’s job to rebuild that trust. She appears well-suited to do it.