Politics & Government

Ron Carlee to step down as Charlotte city manager

The Charlotte City Council will not renew City Manager Ron Carlee’s contract, people familiar with the issue said Wednesday.
The Charlotte City Council will not renew City Manager Ron Carlee’s contract, people familiar with the issue said Wednesday. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, whose future has been in question for the past nine months, will step down from the post, the city announced Wednesday.

City Council met in closed session Wednesday afternoon to discuss Carlee’s future, as well as to consider who should be named as interim city manager.

The city said in a news release after the meeting that Carlee wouldn’t seek an extension of his original three-year contract, which expires at the end of March. It’s possible he could remain on the job longer to ensure a smooth transition.

Over the last several months, council members were divided over whether to renew Carlee’s contract. Mayor Jennifer Roberts had recently appointed a special committee of five council members to consider whether Carlee’s contract should be renewed. That group was split on whether Carlee should remain with the city, sources said.

Carlee, who was hired in spring 2013, was the first outside hire for city manager since Wendell White in 1981.

Anthony Foxx, who was mayor at the time, lobbied council members to hire an outside candidate to replace Curt Walton, and they ultimately picked Carlee, the chief operating officer of the International City/County Management Association. He was previously manager of Arlington County, Va.

When Carlee took over, the General Assembly was moving to shift control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to an independent authority, away from the city.

Carlee was in charge when Jerry Orr was removed from the airport in the summer of 2013, a leadership change that stunned many in the city. (Orr said Carlee fired him; Carlee said Orr had essentially fired himself by assuming control of the airport authority.)

Carlee helped the city keep the airport, which it still controls today.

At the time of Carlee’s hire, Foxx said Carlee could be an effective spokesperson for the city.

A year into Carlee’s tenure, the manager was in a staff meeting when he heard shocking news: Mayor Patrick Cannon had been arrested on federal corruption charges. Carlee uttered a single expletive.

The day after the arrest, Carlee gave a forceful defense of the city in a news conference, saying Cannon’s misdeeds were isolated and not a symptom of a larger problem in the city.

“I thought he was an especially good communicator,” said Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “He showed leadership in the wake of the Cannon arrest. The city said and did the right thing, and his fingerprints were all over that.”

But over the last two years, Carlee’s visible role receded, as some council members worried he had become too outspoken. They told him he needed to take a step back.

Carlee often spoke about bringing best practices to the city, and he undertook a number of audits and reviews of city departments.

One of his most controversial decisions came in fall 2014, when he supported the termination of a Fire Department arson inspector because of a Facebook post the inspector made in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., protests.

At the time, some council members privately questioned whether the post warranted termination.

Carlee launched an investigation into whether the Fire Department had forced out the inspector, Crystal Eschert, because she had been a whistleblower.

The investigation caused friction between Carlee and Fire Chief Jon Hannan, who said his department did nothing wrong. The report found no evidence that the department had retaliated, based on the information it was able to review.

A number of high-ranking city officials left during his tenure. Some complained that Carlee wasn’t a team player, according to employees and council members.

Last year, when former police chief Rodney Monroe announced he was retiring, council members met in closed session and considered taking a vote of confidence on whether Carlee should stay.

“My goal from the start of my service to the Charlotte community was to help create an inclusive, forward-thinking environment,” Carlee said in a news release Wednesday. “I am grateful to have worked with such a dedicated workforce, all of whom are committed to excellence in public service.”

The city said he would not be available for interviews.

Under Carlee’s tenure, the city passed or enacted a number of resolutions or ordinances that pleased progressives, including a new policy to “ban the box” and not initially ask job applicants about their criminal history. Council members also approved a policy that reaffirmed that the police wouldn’t engage in racial profiling; earlier this week, council members approved giving new legal protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Council members and Foxx chose Carlee over two internal finalists: Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble and Assistant City Manager Ruffin Hall. Hall ended up leaving to become Raleigh city manager.

It’s possible Kimble could be named interim manager or get the job permanently.

The City Council decided in closed session in July not to offer Carlee a contract extension, and instead pushed the decision on his future to the new council, which took office in December.

Carlee’s total compensation is $290,000, plus the use of a car. His pay hadn’t increased since his contract was signed in 2013.

Before Carlee, city managers had been at-will employees. But Carlee had asked for a contract before moving to the city.

That contract ultimately loomed over council, who couldn’t agree on whether he should stay or go.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs