August 6, 2014

City’s executive shakeup raises questions

In recent months, a number of high-ranking city of Charlotte staff members have retired or left for other jobs, causing some City Council members to wonder if the city is struggling to retain talent.

In recent months, a number of high-ranking city of Charlotte staff members have retired or left for other jobs, causing some City Council members to wonder if the city is struggling to retain talent.

The latest departure came Friday, when Assistant City Manager Eric Campbell announced he’s leaving for a similar position in Dallas.

In July, Brad Richardson, the city’s economic development director, left for a job in the private sector.

The city’s top communications official, Kim McMillan, left for the private sector in March, along with Greg Gaskins, the finance director.

In late 2013, two other assistant city managers left: Julie Burch retired and Ruffin Hall became city manager in Raleigh.

City Manager Ron Carlee, who started in April 2013, created a six-person “executive team” soon after starting with the city.

Half of that team – Campbell, Hall and Burch – is gone. Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, planning director Debra Campbell and executive assistant Carol Jennings remain.

Carlee said he’s not concerned by the turnover, which he said is normal based on his previous work experience.

“I consider it highly advantageous to have turnover in (assistant city managers) and for ACMs to have diverse work experiences,” Carlee said.

Carlee added that he’s been able to replace Hall and Burch with good hires: Hyong Yi from Mecklenburg County and Ann Wall from Rocky Mount.

Eric Campbell had worked in Charlotte for six years before accepting the Dallas job. He will still be an assistant city manager in Texas, but his salary will go up considerably, from $187,000 to $225,000.

“The situation in Charlotte was fine,” Campbell said. “Charlotte is a wonderful organization. The people here are top-notch. I have no issues with people. The (Dallas) manager has only been there since January. To join a new manager and a new executive team is a great opportunity.”

District 4 council member Greg Phipps, who has been active in city politics since 2005, said he can’t remember a time when so many top officials left. He said he’s not worried there is a systemic problem at the city, saying he felt the departures were coincidental.

At-large council member Vi Lyles, who previously worked in the city as a budget director, said some of the retirements are due to baby boomers reaching retirement age.

“It’s OK to give someone new a chance,” she said. “I see retirements as an opportunity to bring in people with new ideas.”

Some council members say privately they are concerned as to whether the city’s work culture is as healthy as it has been in the past.

Carlee was hired in early 2013 as the city’s first outside manager since Wendell White in 1981.

The City Council gave him his first evaluation last month, which was held in closed session, as permitted by state law. That has been how council members have historically evaluated managers, though they also would take a vote in open session on whether to grant any raise. They would also usually make a few comments about how they felt the manager was performing.

Carlee’s three-year contract locks in his salary and benefits of $290,000 annually for the entire length of the contract, so there is no annual vote on his compensation.

Lyles and Phipps said they think the manager is doing a good job. John Autry, who represents District 5, agreed, as did council member David Howard, an at-large member.

“I think Ron Carlee has had some major challenges,” Howard said. “Given those challenges, he has stepped up.”

Former Mayor Anthony Foxx urged council members to hire Carlee, and Foxx said he wanted Carlee to be a strong communicator, as someone who could sell policies to the public.

When he started, Carlee filled that role. He was outspoken about the city’s desire to keep control of the airport. After former Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on federal corruption charges in late March, Carlee again used his position as a bully pulpit, telling the media and residents that Charlotte wasn’t a “pay to play” city.

But some council members have said they are uncomfortable with having such an outspoken manager, and Carlee has recently begun to dial back his statements.

In 2013, the city had perhaps its most high-profile departure, when aviation director Jerry Orr left during the battle over who would control Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Orr’s supporters say Carlee fired him. Carlee said Orr quit when he announced he was head of the airport commission, which was created by the General Assembly to run the airport.

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