The Heat on Ron Carlee

Now's not a good time for Charlotte to pour sand in its own tank
Logan Cyrus

Maybe Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee is the reason why a score of city administrators have left, and maybe that’s why the City Council is unhappy with his performance. Maybe Carlee has, in council members’ eyes, overstepped his authority as manager, veering toward setting rather than enacting policy. Maybe the council is acting like a brood of Chickens Little after Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s retirement announcement Monday, and their dissatisfaction will cool after a week or two.

But I do know a couple of things: Carlee has a wealth of high-level experience and strong views on how Charlotte or any city ought to be run; and council members throw occasional fits whenever they think someone is encroaching on their authority to make policy decisions.

It happens. Council-manager tension is baked into the cake. Carlee’s predecessor, Curt Walton, dealt with it, as did Walton’s predecessor, Pam Syfert, who spent more than a decade in the position. It’s hard enough answering to one boss when you’re trying to run a city of 800,000. Try answering to 11.

We’ll see what happens when Carlee’s contract comes up for renewal next spring, or whether the council might act beforehand (which I doubt). A few things come to mind, though.

Supposedly, one of the council’s main concerns is the defection of department heads and assistant city managers, plus a couple of key positions—the permanent airport director’s job and the CATS CEO’s position—that remain unfilled. The concern is understandable, but both agencies seem to be running as usual; if there’s any cause for worry about leadership at either, it’s not because service levels have dropped.

Second, it’s not as if administrators are leaving to take retail jobs. Former Assistant City Manager Ruffin Hall is now the city manager in Raleigh. Another ex-assistant manager, Eric Campbell, left for a higher-paying job in Dallas. Carolyn Flowers, the ex-CATS CEO, left her position in December to work for the Federal Transit Administration. And so on. (There’s Jerry Orr, of course, but that was a special case that lit up before Carlee’s arrival.)

Third, it’s hard to imagine a city dealing with more crises—mostly not self-imposed—in a shorter time than Charlotte in the last two years: The airport issue, which remains unresolved. The foofaraw over funding for the Gold Line streetcar project. The arrest and guilty plea of ex-Mayor Patrick Cannon. Now a budget crisis, which you can argue the city could have better prepared for but which ultimately was the state’s and county’s doing.

It’s been a rough two years, during which Carlee has admirably tried to make city government more transparent, for example publishing city departments’ audits online. (That transparency is likely another source of tension.) But in this case, with unnamed council members leaking the news that they considered a no-confidence vote on Carlee’s performance during a closed session, a little less transparency would have done some good.

Carlee told a reporter yesterday that he hadn’t yet met one-on-one with every council member. Regardless of whose fault that is, both he and the council that’s so skittish about its city manager ought to iron out their disagreements in private before making a public show of their distrust. That’s not helping anyone—not the council, not Carlee, and certainly not the people who depend on both to govern Charlotte.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest