Politics & Government

After Mayor Roberts takes office, 2 female aides to be pushed aside

Jennifer Roberts was sworn in as mayor of Charlotte on Monday in the council chambers at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
Jennifer Roberts was sworn in as mayor of Charlotte on Monday in the council chambers at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

During the campaign, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts spoke about ensuring women are paid and treated fairly in the city workplace.

On Roberts’ first day, the city announced that Ashley Simmons, who had been a mayoral aide to Patrick Cannon and Dan Clodfelter, wouldn’t work for Roberts. She has been moved to a different communications position.

In her place, the city hired one of Roberts’ campaign workers, Gregg Watkins.

Multiple sources inside the city say that the mayor’s other aide, Holly Eskridge, will also soon be moved.

The moves were made at Roberts’ request, sources said. Soon after the election, Roberts asked that City Manager Ron Carlee hire both Watkins and Mark Jerrell, who had worked on council member James “Smuggie” Mitchell’s campaign.

The personnel decisions have rankled some at the Government Center, who wonder whether the two female mayoral aides were treated fairly by Roberts, who campaigned on gender equity.

The decisions also show the difficulty of the city’s form of government, in which the city manager assigns two staff members to the mayor. But those two staff members aren’t hired by the mayor – at least officially – and they answer to the manager.

Some council members, however, said privately that it’s not a surprise that Roberts would want to bring in her own people, even if those staff members do not technically work for her.

Carlee said in an email that the city’s form of government “creates a separation from partisan politics and the professional administration of the organization.”

He said that having a job candidate who had previously worked for the mayor is not an “automatic disqualifier.” Carlee said that Roberts asked him to consider Watkins but that he conducted the interviewing and made the final decision.

Watkins’ job is only for six months. The city said it will post the job then and conduct a search.

He will be paid an annual salary of $74,000 if he stays in the job. Simmons, who declined to comment for this story, was hired at $72,000 and now makes $75,000.

In a statement, Roberts said her role in the staff changes is “nothing new for mayors who have been recently elected.”

She added: “I don’t make the hiring decisions. I made a couple of suggestions to Ron (Carlee) about who I thought would be a good fit for working with me in the mayor’s office.”

Tension between a new mayor and staff are not new.

Under Republican Pat McCrory, one city staff member was assigned to the mayor. That aide, Dennis Marstall, left the city soon after Democrat Anthony Foxx was elected when it became clear Foxx wanted someone else.

Under Foxx, a second staff member was assigned to the mayor.

When Patsy Kinsey was appointed mayor, the two staff members who were assigned to Foxx – Al Killefer and Tracy Montross – stayed. After the election of Patrick Cannon, a Foxx rival, Killefer and Montross left the city for the private sector.

For Cannon, the city first hired on a temporary contract Colleen Brannan to handle communications. Brannan had worked for Cannon’s campaign, and that relationship upset some council members.

The city then hired Simmons to handle communications and Eskridge to handle policy issues. Neither had political ties to Cannon.

Cannon was arrested three months into the job, and council members appointed Clodfelter. Simmons and Eskridge continued to work for Clodfelter.

Clodfelter and Roberts have a frosty relationship. Clodfelter did not call her after she won the election, and at Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, he did not shake her hand.

Eskridge could not be reached for comment.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs