by Jordan Green
High Point City Council is looking for a manager who can find additional revenue while keeping costs down. The council is moving forward with the hire despite the fact that at least half of them will retire shortly after the selection is made.
“A magician” and “someone who can walk on water” were some of the qualities High Point City Council members jokingly said they’re looking for in a new city manager.
Council members want someone with good verbal and written communication skills, someone who lays out options rather than dictates her own preferences, a person with experience putting together a budget and someone with a track record of economic development, they said at a council meeting Monday.
Councilman Jim Davis, who represents Ward 5, said he would like the new manager to do a better job of keeping council informed on what’s happening in the city, citing street-repaving projects as an example. Councilman Jeff Golden, who represents Ward 1, said he wants a manager who can open up the bidding process to a wider array of vendors. Other council members said they sympathize with the goal, but there are only a limited number of companies that can meet the city’s specifications for goods and services.
Some of what council members are asking for might be easier said than done.
“I would like to see someone who’s creative,” Golden said, “and knows how to generate revenue without raising taxes.”
Whoever lands the job will have a steep challenge in figuring out how to understand the tangled relationships among an array of agencies that work on economic development, the arts and core-city revitalization in High Point.
“What are the groups in this community that work on economic development?” consultant Stephen Straus asked council members during a meeting on Monday morning.
“We’re not sure they work on economic development,” at-large Councilwoman Becky Smothers replied.
Straus followed up by asking whether there was “a downtown association of some kind.”
“We’ve got more organizations…,” Smothers said, trailing off.
Her colleague, Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall, suggested that the new city manager, along with new members of city council, should read a 2007 document called “The Core City Plan.”
The city also lacks a strategic plan that outlines what elected leaders and citizens would like to see for High Point in the next 10 to 20 years. Straus said he would recommend the city undertake that exercise as soon as the new manager is hired.
Several candidates for city council attended the meeting, although members of the public were not officially allowed to ask questions, which was devoted to the process of recruiting, screening and selecting a new city manager. A public notice advertised that the meeting would take place in council chambers, but instead the council members met in a cramped conference room in the city manager’s suite of offices. Davis mistakenly told two candidates, Jim Bronnert and Jerry Mingo, that the meeting was a closed session. Once he realized his error, the two were contacted by phone and came in midway through the session.
The city publicized a separate meeting, to be held by the firm leading the city manager search, at 2:30 p.m. — a time when many residents are at work — to gather public input.
While some have suggested that the search for a new city manager should be put on hold until municipal elections are held and a new city council is seated in December, the current council has opted to move forward.
Under the timeline proposed by the search firm, about three finalists will be identified by Oct. 31, allowing the council to make a final selection sometime in November. Election Day is Nov. 4, but the new council won’t be sworn in until December. Some council members said they thought the newly elected members should have some input into the hiring process, even though the final decision will rest with the current council.
Straus said he has never led an executive search process for a city council “in transition.”
City Attorney Joanne Carlyle said she was concerned about maintaining the confidentiality of finalists.
“We’re breaking new ground here,” she said.
Prior to the hiring of the new city manager, Straus said, all information about finalists must be protected so that information about their job history doesn’t allow someone to piece together their identities. He and Carlyle emphasized that newly elected council members who have yet to be sworn in are no different than any other member of the public when it comes to the confidentiality of the finalists.
“If they’re newly elected, they should have some input,” Golden said. “I don’t know if it’s legal.”
Mayor Bernita Sims and Councilman Foster Douglas, who represents Ward 2, did not attend the meeting. Neither is seeking re-election.
The new manager will likely find a council that is struggling to define the city’s challenges and establish priorities.
“I think it’s a given: It’s the pressure on the tax rate,” Smothers said.
She and at-large Councilman Britt Moore both said they believe many of the city’s challenges, such as revenue changes imposed by the state, are out of the council’s hands, and that private investment must take the lead in any revitalization initiatives.
Smothers said the public holds high expectations for city services, challenging a new manager to either recommend service cuts or find ways to fund them in a different manner.
Golden said he wants a new manager to address the lopsided growth of the city, which has occurred on the north side while the inner city has languished.
Several council members said the new manager needs to focus on job creation.
Reflecting his view that economic development is the job of the private sector, Moore said the city needs to address obstacles to permitting so that investors can move more quickly.
Mendenhall said one of the city’s primary challenges is its poverty level, which nearly doubled from 13.2 to 20.7 percent between 2000 and 2012.
“It impacts poor housing, lack of jobs, people who don’t have transportation to get to jobs,” she said. “It impacts education, which we don’t directly control.”
Councilman Jay Wagner, who represents Ward 4, said summed up the city’s primary challenge as transitioning from a traditional economy to a new economy.
“The old economy was built on manufacturing furniture and textiles, mainly hosiery,” he said. “We’re an old manufacturing city…. The new economy is based more on technology and entrepreneurship. There was a day and time in this city in the twenties where there were entrepreneurs who built this city. How do we empower the entrepreneurs of today to build the new economy?”