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For new Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, a long but steady rise to the top

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/24/16/22/gQyVb.Em.138.jpeg|243
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    “I loved public administration,” Dena Diorio says of her time serving in the office of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York. “I love to have the ability to make a tremendous impact on the community where I live.”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/24/16/22/1tdpsL.Em.138.jpeg|258
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Dena Diorio was named the new Mecklenburg county manager by the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 17. In this photo from that night, she is joined by her husband, Robert Diorio.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/24/16/22/C39hW.Em.138.jpeg|249
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Dena Diorio “knows the problems, and she knows how to fix them,” Mecklenburg County board Chair Trevor Fuller says.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/24/16/22/3VWNq.Em.138.jpeg|231
    MARK HAMES - mhames@charlotteobserver.com
    Dena Diorio with her husband, Robert, on Dec. 17, the night she was named the new Mecklenburg County manager.

One evening six years ago, the phone rang at the home of Robert and Dena Diorio in Connecticut.

Robert answered. On the line was Harry Jones, the manager of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina.

He asked for Dena. Robert knew his wife had just boarded a plane from Charlotte, where she had interviewed with Jones and others to be Mecklenburg’s next finance director. So he thought it was odd that Jones asked for her, but realized later that the manager just wanted to talk to him.

“He told me: ‘You know I am really looking forward to you folks coming down,’ ” Robert recalled. “ ‘Not only did I find a finance director. I found the next county manager.’ 

Jones hadn’t planned on being prophetic quite so soon; he’d wanted to retire in late 2015. But on Dec. 17, seven months after county commissioners fired Jones and undertook a national search for his replacement, the board was so impressed with Dena Diorio – and her message of change – it unanimously made her Mecklenburg’s new county manager.

On Thursday, Diorio, a fast talker with a brilliant smile, will work her first full day as Mecklenburg’s fifth manager in the 51 years since the county adopted a manager-commission form of government. She’s the first woman to lead a county staff that now numbers nearly 5,000 employees and oversee a $1.7 billion budget. She’ll be paid nearly $263,000 a year.

Her ascent to a top post has been methodical and carefully executed.

It started in New York City and continued to two Connecticut cities. Then to Mecklenburg, where as finance director she was credited with maintaining the county’s important AAA bond rating and cutting debt during the recession.

The search came down to two candidates – Diorio and another woman. In the end, the board felt Diorio will make changes they – and she – believe the county needs.

Her life’s been a world of numbers and spreadsheets, but commissioners also portrayed her as a “change agent.”

Notably, Diorio wants to continue rebuilding public trust after a troubled revaluation in 2011 brought a property owner revolt and the county dealt with serious problems in social services and mental health agencies.

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

All were problems that led to Jones’ downfall.

‘Cares about quality’

Some commissioners said they were reluctant to hire an insider like Diorio, reasoning the county needed a fresh perspective.

But then they heard Diorio and their choice became “obvious,” board Chairman Trevor Fuller said.

“She knows the problems, and she knows how to fix them. When she left, we just sat there; no one said a word,” he said. “There was just this sense that, ‘Ahhhhhhh, we’ve found the right person.’ 

Some wonder whether Diorio is up to the task – this being her first stint at the top.

Fuller has no doubts.

“Dena’s proven she’s ready,” he said. “She’s about doing the business and doing it expertly and professionally. She knows how to deal with personality issues. She doesn’t come across like ‘I’m going to crush your head.’

“She’s respectful and tactful, but you know there’s some force there, too.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison saw some of that as his staff worked with county administrators on a 2013 school bond package.

He said Diorio was tough, but “really cares about quality.” He said he looks forward to working with her as manager.

“If things hadn’t worked out (for Diorio), I’d have loved to find a spot for her in our school district.”

Started in social work

Little in Diorio’s early life forecast that she was headed for public administration.

She grew up Dena Wiesel and was raised by Jewish parents (the late George and Carol Wiesel) in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City. She walked to her elementary school, took Hebrew lessons and celebrated her bat mitzvah at 13.

George Wiesel had moved his family to Westchester to start ABL Electronic Supplies, a wire and cable manufacturer. Years later, the Diorios bought the company and then moved it to Concord when Dena Diorio was hired by Mecklenburg County.

Her parents instilled their religious devotion in their two daughters (Diorio has a sister, Miriam), but after her bat mitzvah, Diorio says she stopped practicing.

As a child, she wanted to be a lawyer like her uncle, Max Bloom, a former N.Y. Supreme Court justice. But at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, she pursued a degree in social work and volunteered at a crisis center counseling suicidal children.

Graduating in 1984, her first job out of college was at a residential facility where she worked with children who’d been abused and neglected.

“They were kids who were just different – wild and uncontrollable, needing supervision,” she said.

She asked him out

As Diorio worked to understand what created the children’s problems, she became drawn to policy that affected them and their care.

That led her to Columbia University for a master’s degree in public administration, focusing on policy issues.

She graduated in 1988 and began her ascent, first as a financial analyst in New York City’s general services department. Two years later, she was in the mayor’s office, starting in operations.

About then, friends introduced her to Robert Diorio, a Roman Catholic and 12 years older. They became fast friends. Yet, secretly, each was smitten with the other. Robert, shy, hoped Dena would ask him out.

She did, taking him to lunch at a Greenwich Village diner on Valentine’s Day 1991. “I thought he was adorable, so I asked him out.”

Soon they were engaged. They wanted to marry on Valentine’s Day 1992, but it fell on a Friday – the Jewish sabbath. “My mother said, ‘If you have your wedding on a Friday night, no one will come.’ ” So they were married the next day at the United Nations chapel.

In 1995, Dena Diorio became director of city legislative affairs for then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Her position gave her considerable access to Giuliani; she met with him each Friday to sign bills or discuss Giuliani’s legislative initiatives with City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

“It was a blast, a lot of fun,” she said.

It also brought Diorio into contact with celebrities such as actor Tony Randall, who in 1995 married a woman 50 years younger at a City Hall ceremony with Giuliani presiding.

A year later, the New York Yankees won the World Series, and it was Diorio’s job to escort players off a parade float and into City Hall. There she met another guest: Yankee great Joe DiMaggio.

‘The complete package’

After eight years in the mayor’s office, Diorio had found her goal: She wanted to be a county or city manager.

“I loved public administration,” she said. “I love to have the ability to make a tremendous impact on the community where I live.”

In 1998, she took a job in Stamford, Conn., as director of the city’s policy and management office. She left nearly four years later to take a job in Danbury, Conn., a city of 100,000 an hour north, as finance and human resources director for full-time Mayor Mark Boughton.

Diorio constantly pursued tough projects. Danbury, Boughton said, had a concert park that was in danger of closing. Diorio told him she wanted to revive it.

“It wasn’t her function, but she said ‘I think I can fix this,’ ” he said. “That’s Dena. She’s fearless when it comes to stepping out of her comfort zone. She’s one of the most insightful administrators I’ve ever been around.

“I can’t emphasize enough what a quality manager Mecklenburg is going to have.”

One day in 2007, Robert decided he wanted to move to warmer climes. He saw online that Mecklenburg needed a finance director.

“Here, try this one,” she said he told her.

Dena did, and began the process.

She told Boughton she didn’t think she’d get the job.

“I told her, ‘You’re going to get this job. And one day – it may not be in Charlotte, but somewhere – you’re going to be a county manager,’ ” he said.

‘In it to serve the people’

Six months later, she got the job.

In 2009, as revenues fell during the recession, Diorio urged the county to freeze borrowing for new construction projects, and to put the county on a “debt diet,” looking for ways to better manage construction spending. Those measures ultimately saved Mecklenburg’s AAA bond rating.

Now she’s reached her goal of county manager. She’d been looking at other manager jobs, in Durham County (she withdrew) and in rural Pinal County, Ariz., (wasn’t a good fit, she says).

“I knew we were getting a new county manager, and if it wasn’t going to be me, it was a good time to look for other opportunities,” Diorio said.

Yet she believed she could get the job here.

“I thought I could demonstrate to the commissioners that I was the best person positioned to make the changes they want,” she said.

She plans to spend the first month meeting her staff of thousands.

“I want to share with my vision and what I want to do,” she said. “I could do a video statement, but I want to meet them eye to eye. I like to engage, to collaborate. I want departments to be engaged.

“I think it’s important for department directors to have access to the county manager.”

That’s the kind of leader her husband says she is.

“She’s not in this to become a rock star,” Robert Diorio said. “She’s in it to serve the people of Mecklenburg County. The commissioners are the elected officials and she understands that it’s their show.” Staff reporters April Bethea and Ann Doss Helms contributed.

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