Making payroll: Lee Garrity, the steady hand

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Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity keeps a copy of Good to Great on his desk.
Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity keeps a copy of Good to Great on his desk.

by Jordan Green

City managers typically last six years on the job. By that measure, Lee Garrity, who has served as the city of Winston-Salem’s chief executive since 2006, is playing extra innings.

Since joining the city in 1990, Garrity rose through the ranks as a budget analyst and assistant city manager, among other positions. The Winston-Salem City Council appointed him city manager in January 2006, only three months after his peer, Mitch Johnson, was hired for the top job in the city of Greensboro. Johnson was held in high esteem by the council that hired him, but the next election brought in a council that questioned his leadership and he was eventually fired, in 2009.

Greensboro has seen two city managers come and go since then, with Rashad Young and Denise Turner Roth stepping down to accept jobs with the city of Alexandria and the federal government respectively. Strib Boynton, the longtime city manager of High Point who was hired in 1998, retired at the end of June at the culmination of a series of testy closed-door meeting in which council members debated staff’s handling of credit-card and procurement-card spending.

“The average tenure is about six years,” Garrity said. “Part of it is an occupational hazard. Councils change. Sometimes they do the one thing they can do to make an immediate change — change their manager.”

As the city’s chief executive, the city manager is accountable to the city council, which essentially acts as his board of directors.

“When I mentor young people, I tell them to start from the perspective with elected officials that they have good intentions,” Garrity said. “They want to make a difference. They may have different ideas about how to do it and how to pay for it. They don’t get in this for the pay. Respect that individual and his or her office, no matter what. You have to figure out how you can problem-solve together.”

With nine members of city council in each of the three cities, it’s conventional wisdom that it takes five votes to get anything done, including fire a city manager. The only problem with the calculation is that one election can change the composition of the city council. And Garrity said any city manager would be advised to put aside such math.

“I don’t believe in counting votes,” he said. “I think if you count votes you’re stepping into the political realm. Leave that to council members. I respect all council members, even if one of them is on the other side on most issues from the majority.”

Garrity earns a salary of $172,775, only slightly more than the $172,001 earned by interim City Manager Randy McCaslin in High Point, a city half the size of Winston-Salem. McCaslin served as town manager in Kernersville for 19 years before joining the city of High Point. His pay jumped 21.0 percent, from $142,120, when he was promoted from assistant manager to interim manager in High Point.

Greensboro, the largest city in the Triad, typically offers the most competitive pay for top management jobs. Denise Turner Roth earned $180,250 as city manager in Greensboro at the time she was appointed by President Obama to work as a deputy administrator in the US General Services Administration. Her successor, Jim Westmoreland, commands the highest salary of any city manager in the Triad, at $191,000.

A former transportation director and assistant city manager under then-City Manager Mitch Johnson, Westmoreland already held an impressive résumé when the city lured him back from the state Transportation Department. He was initially tapped as an interim city manager to fill the vacancy left by Roth, but Greensboro City Council decided to forego a national search and appoint Westmoreland to the position on a permanent basis, with Mayor Nancy Vaughan citing his 20-plus years of “experience in public-sector management” and “firm understanding of the strategic direction of the city.”

With the promotion, Westmoreland’s pay jumped 21.7 percent, from $157,000.

Among city employees in the Triad, Westmoreland’s salary is exceeded only by that of Matt Brown, who earns $269,575 as director of the Greensboro Coliseum.

Garrity said the relative modesty of his compensation package doesn’t tempt him to shop his résumé on the job market.

“I have a really great organization and city council,” he said. “Everybody works well together. This council has a tradition of being civil.”

He added that city employees typically make far less than their counterparts in the private sector, and doesn’t believe his peers are motivated by their salaries.

“What motivates me and other managers is the challenge and opportunity to improve quality of life for citizens,” he said.

It’s a job that’s well suited for a generalist.

“As a manager I get to know a little bit about everything and not a lot about anything,” Garrity said. “I consider myself a facilitator and a translator for an elected city council and mayor. They’re hired by the people. I translate between them and the professional staff.”

Whether it’s a hotel that is attracting crime, a neighborhood where residents are aggravated by speeders or a major transportation project with significant alterations to interchanges, the city manager often navigates between needs raised by constituents through their elected officials and technical regulations or legal processes as a matter of sound administration.

Garrity, who manages 2,500 employees, said the most under-appreciated members of his staff might be the sanitation workers, adding that he doesn’t discount the work performed by police and firefighters, whose work is more visible to the public and heralded in TV shows. Starting pay for firefighters and police officers in Winston-Salem has gradually improved, with employees who hold associates degrees making slightly less than their peers in Greensboro and High Point.

“We often take it for granted that when we put our garbage and brush out, it’s gone,” he said. “We only notice it when it’s not picked up.”

The city has raised its minimum hourly rate to $10.10, which Garrity said is “fairly close to what a livable wage is if you’re single.”

As a result of the pay increase, starting pay for custodians in Winston-Salem is slightly better than for their counterparts in Greensboro and High Point, but Winston-Salem lags in pay to sanitation workers and general laborers.

“We take it for granted that when we flush our toilet, it’s going to be taken care of,” Garrity said. “I’ve seen our crews working on water line breaks in 20-degree weather on nights and weekends. It’s pretty heroic stuff you and I wouldn’t know how to do.”