Mecklenburg County Officials Drag Feet on Hiring Manager

After promising a new day, commissioners are governing in the dark

The people who fired the county manager for his lack of transparency have been about as transparent as a cinder-block wall in choosing his successor.

In May, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners abruptly fired longtime County Manager Harry Jones. New board Chairman Pat Cotham orchestrated the ouster, arguing that Jones wasn’t responsive enough to the board or the citizens he served.

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The board set a goal of October 15 to find Jones’s replacement. That deadline came and went. Two days later, the county’s search firm presented a list of candidates to the board committee assigned to review applications.

The list was confidential. The board didn’t even disclose how many candidates were on it (although Cotham later said there were 17).

Five months after the firing of the county manager, the county’s elected representatives told their constituents, in effect, “We’ll get back to you on that.”

This is all within the county’s authority, of course. Commissioners aren’t legally obligated to disclose the candidate names or meet an arbitrary deadline they set for themselves. But if you’re Cotham, and you were elected on promises of a new day in open, responsive county government, you’d better deliver.

Instead, she makes excuses. The deadline was just a “goal,” she told me before the October 15 commissioners’ meeting. She didn’t realize it would take so long to hire the search firm, Coleman Lew + Associates of Charlotte. “That was just my inexperience,” she says. “We want to get the right person. There’s no rush to get the wrong person. … I think we’ll be fine.” 

Which might be understandable if not for two things: The county budget process begins in January. At this rate, Jones’s replacement will have to start crafting a budget at roughly the same time he or she learns where the restrooms are.

Second, and more important: After the past few years in Mecklenburg County—with the mismanagement nightmare at the Department of Social Services, the botched property revaluation, and Jones’s dismissal—you’d think the board would be more sensitive to concerns about lack of leadership.

It usually takes about 60 days for a search firm to develop an initial list of candidates for a government job, says Coleman Lew President Ken Carrick. Then comes the winnowing, the list of finalists, and the ultimate decision—and the entire time, the firm is open to other promising candidates.

So it’s a complicated and exacting process, and nobody wants county leaders to rush. That’s why they should go out of their way to keep the public more informed about the search process, the timetable, and the qualities they’re looking for in a manager. Cotham should know as well as anyone how little confidence Mecklenburg County government inspires these days. 

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