Special meeting evolves as good civics (and HR) lesson for Blowing Rock Town Council

Special meeting evolves as good civics (and HR) lesson for Blowing Rock Town Council
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By David Rogers. October 22, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Monday afternoon’s special meeting of Blowing Rock Town Council evolved as a Class AAA refresher cram course in town commissioners’ civic duties, courtesy of Hartwell Wright and Heather James, Human Resources Consultants with the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

The publicly announced purpose of the special meeting was to consider the hiring of an interim Town Manager.  Last week, current Town Manager Ed Evans announced that he will resign his post effective December 1, 2018. According to the introductory comments made by Mayor Charlie Sellers, the special meeting came at the urging of Commissioner Albert Yount, but the invitation to Wright and James from the League of Municipalities was advanced by Sellers to speak with the commissioners and mayor about the entire process of selecting a full-time town manager, as well as an interim.

For the almost two dozen town residents and business owners attending the meeting (held at the Blowing Rock Community Clubhouse because of a Town Hall scheduling conflict with Early Voting), the discussion was a valuable lesson in municipal affairs, as much for them as for the Town Council members.

Everyone (on Town staff) reports to the Town Manager. They do not work for the elected officials.

Ultimately, the commissioners unanimously voted to pursue the hiring of an interim manager, which was a foregone conclusion since state law dictates that Blowing Rock’s council-manager form of government must have a town manager.

As for the interim, the commissioners have the option of identifying and selecting their own or asking the League of Municipalities (Hartwell) for a candidate suggestion. Hartwell told the Council members that if they ask for a suggestion from him, they will get “a” name, that it would not be a competitive hire. “I will not provide you with a recommendation,” Hartwell said. “I will provide you with a name of (a professional town manager) who has said he would have an interest in helping the Town of Blowing Rock (on an interim basis).”

The League of Municipalities representative described his prospective referral as most likely a retired professional manager. He added that the commissioners and mayor should not expect any new projects or initiatives of an interim manager. Rather, he said, the interim’s primary purpose is to keep the “ship” (town) “…going straight and keep the lights on.”

Hartwell pointed out that the best interim manager candidate is going to be in close geographical proximity, that most are retired professional managers, and that the right interim manager can offer valuable assistance in finding a permanent manager.

Toward the end of the discussion, Yount reported that he had received one unsolicited resume for the interim job from someone he claimed he did not know.

Although the interim manager-related discussion was the stated purpose of the meeting, most of the time was devoted to educating the commissioners and mayor on what the League of Municipalities considers to be characteristics of an ideal process for selecting and hiring a full-time manager.

Among his discussion points, a few nuggets:

  • Develop a plan/process and stick to it
  • A well-conceived hiring process for a full-time manager will require about six months because the periodicals in which the Town advertises the job opening will need time, and then the pool of potential applicants will require time to see the ad and respond
  • Absolute confidentiality is a must, keeping the identities of applicants private and only known by the Council members and whatever staff member might be assigned to collect and organize the resumes
  • Every person submitting a resume for consideration should receive an acknowledgment letter and thank-you note for the submission
  • There are 100 counties in North Carolina and approximately 300 towns and cities that have a professional full-time manager. There are currently some 30 vacancies that other towns and cities are trying to fill, so whomever Blowing Rock selects from among its applicants may also be looking at other open positions. In other words, there is competition to attract the preferred candidate.
  • In developing the selection plan, develop the rules of the process so that everyone knows what they are at the beginning and can follow them
  • Each Council member should develop a profile with three or four most important characteristics for the Blowing Rock manager position, then collectively the Board should decide the ones that are the most important to comprise the profile
  • The process may take longer than six months since a good part of it will be conducted over the holiday period incorporating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s
  • While advertising in a statewide newspaper is a waste of time and money, using local media to advertise the position could be an important resource because a local outlet can provide information about the process and can report on the process.  “If you don’t publicize the process, citizens will start making up what they think it is.”
  • When you get to the few candidates you want to interview, check references, send them an invitation letter explaining what they can expect when they get here, especially if they are going to be introduced to anyone (need to protect against a potential breach of confidentiality because the candidate may not have yet told his current employer that he is considering another opportunity)
  • Don’t exclude from consideration a manager who has been fired. “There are two types of professional manager,” Hartwell quipped. “One that has been fired and the one that is going to be fired.”
  • It is more important to take the time needed to hire the right person than it is to fill the position

There were many of these sorts of suggestions made by Hartwell and James, but one surfaced and stood out during the dialogue between the consultants and the Commissioners after Powell wondered about waiting to fill vacant department head seats until after the full-time Town Manager is hired. “…Unless the Town Charter says otherwise, everyone (employed by) the Town works for the (Town) Manager. He (or she) does not work for the elected officials.”

The meeting lasted approximately one hour and 27 minutes, adjourned shortly before 5:30 pm after starting at 4:00 pm.

Editor’s Note: One of the most impressive things about the meeting was that all of the Town Council members seemed to be listening to every word of wisdom offered by Hartwell and James. They seemed engaged and asked good and relevant questions, with little in the way of pontificating and posturing.

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