12/11/19: THE TOWN COUNCIL FURTHER DELAYS THE ALREADY DELAYED SEARCH FOR A NEW TOWN MANAGER; Behind-the-Scenes Deliberations Raise Red Flags; The Mayor Shows Bias

The “new” Town Council last week delayed until Jan. 21 any action on the already delayed search for a town manager to succeed Peter Rascoe without explaining the behind-the-scene deliberations that led to the delay.

Mr. Rascoe gave notice of his Sept. 1 retirement on July 19. His last day on the job was Aug. 16.

During the Council’s Dec. 3 meeting Mayor Tom Bennett said that he had held three meetings with members of the new Town Council during the period between the November election and the swearing-in of the newly elected members.

It was during this time that the new Town Council apparently decided to have a consultant speak at its Jan. 21 workshop regarding “the process of hiring a town manager,” as the Mayor said, thus delaying the selection of a search firm for at least another seven weeks.

According to Town Human Resources Director Bonnie Swain, if the Town does not contract with a search firm until January, the new town manager will probably not be hired and appointed until late May.

That the “new” Town Council made such a significant decision outside of a public forum, without public accountability and public participation, raises a large red flag for The Beacon. That Council members freely did so, despite three of them lacking any legal authority to speak for the Town Council until they were sworn in Dec. 3, raises another.

Although the newly elected Town Council members were not yet subject to North Carolina’s open meeting laws—also called “sunshine” laws because they illuminate—they would do well to remember why they exist. They ensure the public’s right to access to the internal workings of government, not just to announcements of its “done deals.”

Sunshine laws ensure greater transparency, candidness, and openness in government deliberations, as well as votes and meetings.

In a council-manager form of government, such as Southern Shores has, the mayor’s role is—and should be—limited. The duties and powers of the council, manager, and mayor are defined by state law. It is the full council that governs, not the mayor.

As we explain below, the N.C. legislature has delineated the powers and duties of a city/town manager, providing a well-known job description. Southern Shores has had six permanent managers since 1988 and should have records detailing previous searches.

This isn’t rocket science. We believe a delay for a consultant is absurd.

TOWN MANAGER HIRING SEARCH AND MAYOR’S BIAS

Planning Director Wes Haskett has been serving as Interim Town Manager since Sept. 1.

At its Aug. 6 regular meeting, the former Town Council directed Mr. Haskett and Mr. Rascoe to prepare a list of search firms to consider at its September meeting “for the process of going forward to hire and appoint a full-time manager.”

The vote on the directive was 4-1, with the Mayor dissenting. According to N.C. law (General Statutes sec. 160A-69), a mayor only has the right to vote when the vote among Town Council members is tied. Unfortunately, Southern Shores has not traditionally observed this restriction.

N.C. law also specifies that mayors “preside” at Town Council meetings; they do not control them.

After first erroneously identifying him, Mayor Bennett explained at last week’s meeting that the consultant coming to the Jan. 21 workshop would inform the Council “what he recommends we look for in a manager based on his history and experience.” No other Town Council member publicly commented on the need or desire for such advice.

The adviser is Hartwell Wright, a human resources consultant with the N.C. League of Municipalities (NCLM), which is a membership organization well-known to all N.C. town staff. Ms. Swain correctly, but offhandedly, identified Mr. Wright in remarks she made to the Council Dec. 3, after Mayor Bennett said the consultant was from the UNC-CH School of Government (SOG).

Mr. Wright’s name appears on a list of four “management search consultants by fee” that Mr. Haskett compiled for the Town Council to consider in September, when Mayor Bennett stopped “the process of going forward” with the search.

In her presentation to the Council last week, Ms. Swain discussed—largely, in general terms—her contact with the three firms: N-Focus of Kannapolis; Developmental Associates, LLC, of Chapel Hill; and The Mercer Group of Raleigh.

She said one of the firm representatives was a former town manager, but did not identify him. Based on our research, we believe this would be Steve Straus of Developmental Associates, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Duke and formerly served as an assistant city manager in Southern Pines.

Ms. Swain said nothing about the arrangement the Town made with Mr. Wright, including whether, and how much, it is paying for his consultancy.

The Mayor’s Postponement

After opposing in August the preparation of a search-firm list, Mayor Bennett succeeded at the Town Council’s Sept. 10 meeting with postponing any recommendation of a choice among the firms, until the new Town Council’s December meeting.

The Mayor initiated this postponement by making a confusing motion to defer any action on the search for three months in order “to ensure” that the new town manager’s “education, experience, and qualities are compatible with our new Town Council” and with the “best interests of the town.”

The Beacon wonders if Mayor Bennett knows what the N.C. General Assembly has specified on the subject. The powers and duties enumerated by the state legislature in N.C.G.S. sec. 160A-148 clearly require a person with executive-level decision-making ability and experience in the job. N.C.G.S. sec. 160A-147 actually specifies that “the manager shall be appointed solely on the basis of the manager’s executive and administrative qualifications.”

Most important among the eight paragraphs of the N.C. law that describe the manager’s powers and duties is the second one, which states that the town manager shall “direct and supervise the administration of all departments, offices, and agencies” of the town, subject only to the “general direction and control of the council.”

Councilman Jim Conners quickly seconded the Mayor’s deferral motion, but Councilman Nason, who typically voted with the Mayor and Mr. Conners, did not go along, initially. Not wishing to delay the hiring search unduly, he suggested asking the Town staff to proceed with contacting the firms to obtain their fees, qualifications, and other information, so as to enable the new Council to choose one on Dec. 3.

Ultimately—and speciously, we believe—Mr. Nason decided that the “qualifications” and “criteria” that the then-Town Council might have for the new town manager might be “different” from the qualifications and criteria that the new Town Council would have. On that basis, he voted with the Mayor and Mr. Conners in approving a postponement.

The Beacon wonders if Mr. Nason was aware, as he should have been, of the state laws governing a town manager’s qualifications, powers, and duties. (See “It Isn’t Rocket Science,” below.)

Councilman Newberry asked the Mayor to explain his awkwardly worded motion, which contravened the wishes expressed in August of the other four Town Councilmen.

In restatement, the Mayor said that he thought both the selection of the search firm and the selection of the new town manager should be within “the purview of the new Council,” despite the months-long delay in the process. He repeatedly mentioned that the new Town Council would be working with the new manager for “four years.” The Mayor has two years remaining in his term.

Both Councilmen Newberry and Gary McDonald objected, but they lost to the majority bloc.

Mr. Newberry asked the Mayor: “Why do you want to delay [the search]?”

“What’s the harm?” the Mayor sharply and tellingly replied. “. . . We got a new manager in place. As far as I can tell, he’s doing a fine job.”

As of Sept. 10, Mr. Haskett had been on the job only nine days. Although it may have intended to do so, the Town Council did not vote Aug. 6 to appoint him Acting Town Manager from Aug. 19-Aug. 31, when Mr. Rascoe was still on the job, but on leave. It only voted on his interim appointment—pursuant to another confusingly worded motion made by the Mayor after a closed session between the Council and the Town Attorney.

After the Sept. 10 postponement motion carried, 3-2, Councilman McDonald called out the Mayor on the political maneuver, suggesting that he sought to stall the search.

“You were not in favor of going forward with this process at the last meeting,” Mr. McDonald said. “That’s just a delay tactic, Tom.”

Exercising far more than a limited, largely ceremonial role, Mayor Bennett sternly said, “You expressed your opinion, Gary. . . . It’s been voted on. . . . That’s pretty much the end of it. Thank you.”

But Councilman McDonald had every right to speak on the public record.

The Beacon does not believe this should be the end of it. Instead, we believe an investigation into the Mayor’s conduct and his personal bias is in order.

We recall asking Mayor Bennett after a 2018 spring budget workshop about the Town’s creation and funding of Mr. Haskett’s deputy town manager position. He said then that the need for this position existed because of the possibility that Mr. Rascoe would retire.

That was the first we heard about the then-60-year-old Mr. Rascoe, whose contract had years remaining on it, retiring. The Town subsequently paid for Mr. Haskett to attend weeks of training at the School of Government to do the job that it created for him.

REPORT ON SEARCH FIRMS

During the month that the Mayor was conferring with the new Town Council, he could have asked Ms. Swain to file a written report summarizing the contact she has had with the three search firms—if she has not already done this as a matter of good business practice—and including the information she has obtained from them. But he did not.

If he had, or if Ms. Swain had acted on her own initiative, she would have been able to do more last week than tell the Council that she would be “glad to forward” the client lists, references, and other information she has received from the firms about their practices and qualifications. She could have had this information in the December meeting packet for both the Town Council and the public to peruse.

Instead, Ms. Swain referred vaguely to “some” of the firms (Does that mean two?) having handled town-manager searches for “large cities and counties,” “smaller towns,” and “coastal communities . . . that are comparable to us.” And she told the Council, not surprisingly, that the three firms are “very qualified” and “equally qualified” and that their service fee—$20,000—would be comparable.

She dropped a few of the firms’ client names—Duke, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University—and said that, if the Town contracts with one of the firms in January, “the soonest that the process would allow us to hire a manager would be about the end of May.”

The Beacon has never heard of a process negotiating and signing a contract.

The Town might be able to “hurry them along,” Ms. Swain said, but she noted that all three firms recommend advertising a job opening for “about six to eight weeks.”

I attended UNC-Chapel Hill law school with Ellis Hankins, who is senior vice president of The Mercer Group in Raleigh. I know Mr. Hankins by reputation as an exceptional attorney with a lifetime of experience in representing local governments in different capacities. He is a former executive director, general counsel, chief lobbyist, and board member of the League of Municipalities. He practices law with The Brough Law Firm.

See Mr. Hankins’s biography at http://broughlawfirm.com/team/s-ellis-hankins/.

If Ms. Swain thinks that the three firms are “equally” qualified, then the Town can’t make a bad choice.

IT ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE

Despite the Mayor’s and Mr. Nason’s concerns about “qualifications,” hiring a town manager is not rocket science. Those of us who have been effective executives and managers or have worked for effective executives and managers can readily knock off a list of qualifications needed in an effective town manager. This wheel is well-tread and does not need reinvention.

Since 1988, Southern Shores has had six town managers: Cay Cross (1988-97), who resigned just ahead of the Blue Sky misappropriation-of-funds scandal being exposed; Tom Gjestson (1997-98?-2003); Carl Classen (2003-06); Webb Fuller, as both interim and permanent TM (2006-07); Charles Read Jr. (2008-10); and Peter Rascoe (2010-19).

Interestingly, Police Chief David Kole has served twice as interim town manager: the first time between Mr. Fuller’s and Mr. Read’s tenures, after he’d been on the job for only six months, and again between Mr. Read’s and Mr. Rascoe’s tenures.

Also interestingly, former Mayor Don Smith sought to install his wife, then-Town Administrative Assistant Merrie Smith, as interim town manager after Mr. Fuller stepped down, but his motion was defeated. Instead, Chief Kole was appointed by a 3-2 Town Council vote.

Mr. Smith was the first of Southern Shores’ activist mayors. Since his tenure, the job of town manager—despite it being a matter of state law—has become political, which was never the intent of the North Carolina legislature.

Mr. Fuller, who was Nags Head’s Town Manager for 20 years, assisted the Town as a search consultant during the hiring process that led to Mr. Rascoe’s appointment. He is still on the Outer Banks and can be readily consulted without a fee or any fanfare.

There are a handful of beach town managers (Duck, Kitty Hawk, KDH, Nags Head, Manteo) within easy driving distance of Southern Shores who can advise the Town on the hiring process, as well as give their opinions on town-managerial “right stuff.”

Manteo underwent a rigorous search process to hire its current manager earlier this year, after 30-year Town Manager Kermit Skinner retired. Mayor Bobby Owens would likely be pleased to share his wisdom with the Town Council.

A 20-year Town employee, Ms. Swain also has had ample experience with town-manager searches.

Local governments in North Carolina operate under several different forms: 1) a county-manager or council-manager form, like we have; 2) a mayor-council or mayor-county commissioner form; or 3) an alternative form that complies with state law.

As noted above, NCGS sec. 160A-148 enumerates a town manager’s powers and duties. This statute is codified, verbatim, in Southern Shores Town Code section 2-22.

The Town Council cannot reinvent the wheel, even if it wants to.

The Makings of an Effective Town Manager

The UNC-CH School of Government has written extensively about county and city managers, including about what makes for an “effective” manager.

In a widely circulated 2014 publication, SOG recommends that, in a search for a new town manager, the local government first should “determine the future needs” of the community and the government, and then list the “critical competencies and skills that are required to deal with those future needs.”

To assist in this list-making, the SOG helpfully offers “18 manager competencies” considered by the International City/County Management Assn. (ICMA) to be “essential to effective local government management.”

The ICMA is a professional association of managers, who may become credentialed through its voluntary credentialing program and then commit to 40 hours of professional development each year to retain their credentials. The ICMA also has a professional code of ethics.

The North Carolina association affiliated with the ICMA is known as the N.C. City & County Management Assn. Peter Rascoe was an active member of the N.C. association as of late July 2019.

Among the competencies listed by the ICMA are the following:

*Initiative, risk-taking, vision, creativity, and innovation;

*Budgeting expertise;

*Financial analysis expertise and experience;

*Human resources management experience;

*Skills in strategic planning; advocacy and interpersonal communication; and presentation;

*Integrity; and personal development.

It also included competencies in “democratic advocacy and citizen participation,” “policy facilitation,” “quality assurance,” “media relations,” and “diversity.”

The Beacon urges the Town Council to form a three-person town-manager search committee, comprised of the Council members who will be in office the next four years, and to vest in this committee the authority to make a hiring recommendation that the other two members must accept, without question.

We believe the fundamental fairness of the town-manager search process is at stake.

NEXT UP: BEHIND-THE-SCENES ACTION ON BEACH NOURISHMENT

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 12/11/19

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