Editorials

What’s happened to the young guns?

City Manager Ron Carlee and County Manager Dena Diorio discuss a Charlotte Chamber report on the city’s business climate last year.
City Manager Ron Carlee and County Manager Dena Diorio discuss a Charlotte Chamber report on the city’s business climate last year. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Not long ago they were the “young guns.”

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison. City Manager Ron Carlee. County Manager Dena Diorio.

They were three fresh and dynamic administrators poised to lead Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. They were a collective illustration that Charlotte, coming off a harsh recession, was still a youthful and vibrant city.

Now one of them, Morrison, is gone. One of them, Carlee, might be gone when his three-year contract expires next year.

As the Observer’s Steve Harrison reported today, City Council members discussed in closed session this week whether Carlee’s prickly management style might have led to the retirement of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Rodney Monroe. An ominous sign for Carlee: Council members considered taking a vote of confidence on his performance, Harrison reported.

Diorio is the exception. She’s beloved, or at least respected, by county staff and commissioners.

So what happened to the other young guns?

Each has his own unique difficulties. Morrison, of course, was done in by mistreatment of staff and misleading the school board on a building project. Carlee has inevitably stirred up some resentment with his strong efforts to bring accountability to city departments.

But there are some common threads here.

First, public administrative leadership jobs have short shelf lives. Instead of one boss, you answer to several. Even worse, they’re elected officials with disparate agendas, which means they have their own personal reasons to get annoyed with you. The result is that public administrators often find themselves wearing out their welcome after a handful of years.

But there’s an additional complication with young guns (even when they’re middle-aged, as Charlotte’s are). The reasons you were hired – your confidence, charisma and forward thinking – often contribute to your firing.

Both Carlee and Morrison got their jobs because they were visionaries with the self assurance and smarts to tackle problems in innovative ways. But that confidence has led to reports of abrasiveness with staff and other officials – and at least the perception of dismissiveness toward their bosses.

Council members privately say that Carlee too often gets out in front of them with his ideas, floating things publicly before the Council can process and debate them. Some also complain that he’s so sure that his way is the right way that he brings them proposals – including the recent garbage fee-property tax swap – that have few alternatives.

At least some school board members were similarly uncomfortable with Morrison. Ultimately, when his troubles surfaced, he had fewer allies than he perhaps thought.

Then there’s Diorio. People around city and county government believe she’s every bit as smart of an administrator as Carlee and Morrison, but more shrewd. She embraces the public nature of her job without being showy about it. She’s transparent without being a camera hog. She doesn’t try to come off as the smartest person in the room, although she probably often is.

As for Carlee, he still has all the good qualities that got him hired, and he has an opportunity to endear himself to council members by helping them navigate the city through its budget crisis. He could take some cues from the understated but effective Diorio, who offers a good lesson for all leaders, no matter how many bosses you might have. Even if you’re a young gun, it’s not always best to come out blazing. Peter St. Onge

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