The smart but bumpy legacy of Ron Carlee

The Observer editorial board

To pay for police, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee is recommending a small property tax hike.
To pay for police, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee is recommending a small property tax hike. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Ron Carlee’s tenure as Charlotte’s city manager offers a lesson for talented workers – in government or not: You may be very good at what you do, and you may even be the smartest guy in the room. But it’s risky to show up your bosses.

Carlee announced Wednesday that he will not seek an extension of his three-year contract when it expires next month. The city quickly slapped down reports that the council had decided not to renew Carlee’s contract, but that extension had been in doubt for months, according to council members who’ve spoken to the editorial board.

It’s not that the council thought Carlee was a poor city manager. He often performed exceptionally, especially when Charlotte needed it most. He helped outfox the state legislature over control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and he provided an important, calming voice in two of the city’s most challenging moments: the arrest of its mayor, Patrick Cannon, and the aftermath of the Randall Kerrick mistrial. With the latter, he also helped direct the city’s thorough preparations and response.

Carlee’s tenure included some bumps, too. His efforts to bring accountability and efficiency to city departments brought resentment, perhaps inevitably, as did his chilly management style. Council members also questioned his clumsy firing of Fire Department inspector Crystal Eschert over a Facebook post.

That incident also provided a glimpse into one of the biggest gripes council members had with Carlee – that he too often got out in front of them publicly on controversial issues and news. Two examples: In late 2013, some council members thought Carlee’s public remarks during the airport fight were too political and pointed, and last year, some were upset to learn from media that Carlee preferred an in-house replacement to departing police chief Rodney Monroe.

Council members knew, however, some of what they were getting. Carlee was hired to replace Curt Walton in 2013 in part because he was an outsider with a strong vision, intellect and the strength of personality to move issues forward. That confidence served the city well after Cannon’s arrest and the Kerrick trial, but the council and Carlee could never settle on when he should let others take the lead instead.

Fortunately for Charlotte, the council has solid options moving forward. Assistant manager Ron Kimble, who lost out to Carlee three years ago, is respected throughout the city and should be tapped at least as an interim replacement. Assistant manager Debra Campbell also is a veteran staffer, and while assistant managers Hyong Yi and Ann Wall might not have a lot of big-city experience in their jobs, they’ve certainly earned consideration for the manager position.

The council, however, needs some self-examination before making that decision. For years, Charlotte operated with a city manager who ran things behind the scenes while letting the council and mayor be the public face of government. Ron Carlee disrupted that model, and council members chafed. Now they must decide if they want a city manager who’s a city leader, or just a strong manager.