by John Boyle, avlwatchdog.org
With City Manager Debra Campbell’s contract set to expire in early December, City Council will hold a closed meeting Tuesday, Sept. 12 to discuss the future employment of the city’s top executive.
Campbell, who started work for Asheville in December 2018 after a long career with the City of Charlotte, is working under a five-year contract that will expire Saturday, Dec. 2. If City Council were to take no action, the contract would automatically renew for another two years “unless notice that the agreement shall terminate is given at least 30 days before the expiration date.”
A low-key manager known for being reluctant to work in the spotlight, Campbell has maintained a low-profile despite some very high-profile, controversial and sometimes contentious issues in the city. Those include the protests and rioting in 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, the City Council-mandated removal of the Vance Monument downtown in 2021 and, more recently, the prolonged city water outage over the 2022-23 holiday season.
The city also continues to wrestle with an uptick in homelessness and aggressive behaviors, problems that have bedeviled cities across the country.
“Like any manager, Debra Campbell finds herself in the hot seat in this current political moment,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. “Nationally, cities have been the source of protests and controversies surrounding a host of issues, and Asheville has been no exception.”
Campbell declined an interview for this story, but she did confirm via email Tuesday that the Sept. 12 meeting is being held to discuss her contract.
None of the four council members Asheville Watchdog reached for this story — Mayor Esther Manheimer and Maggie Ullman, Sandra Kilgore and Sage Turner would comment about the meeting. The Watchdog could not reach Council members Antanette Mosley and Kim Roney.
An email from City Council Clerk Maggie Burleson to City Council members states the council will hold a special meeting at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 12 in council chambers and “will immediately go into closed session to prevent disclosure of information that is privileged and confidential” and “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee.”
Campbell joined Asheville in 2018 after serving as assistant city manager in Charlotte from 2014. She started working for that city in 1988 and served as planning director there from 2004 through 2014.
In a city news release announcing her hiring, Campbell promised “to work tirelessly and collaboratively with elected officials, staff and every sector of this community to build on the positive momentum underway in this great city, and to address issues related to public safety and trust, social and economic disparity, and environmental stewardship.”
The resolution accompanying her hiring contract noted the city received 75 applications for city manager before choosing Campbell. She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and a master’s degree in public administration from Middle Tennessee State University. Campbell is a member of the American Planning Association, the Urban Land Institute and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, according to the hiring press release.
Campbell, 65, makes $242,694 a year, plus a $6,000 annual vehicle allowance. She receives an annual review, and her employment record from this year shows she has received raises each of the past three years from her initial salary of $220,000. Those salary increases were listed as “Pay increase – All employees.”
Asheville has a “council-manager” form of government, sometimes also known as “strong manager, weak council.” That means Campbell works at the pleasure of the City Council, but she conducts the hands-on management of the city, while the mayor and council decide on policy.
Campbell replaced Gary Jackson, a white man who had held the job for 13 years but was fired in a unanimous vote by the city council. While the council did not cite a reason for the firing, Jackson had become embroiled in the handling of a case involving a Black pedestrian who was beaten by a white Asheville police officer.
Cooper said the calling of a closed session to discuss the city manager’s job is “standard local government practice” in North Carolina, so he didn’t read anything into the timing of the meeting. But Campbell’s tenure has been fraught with controversy, and some residents have complained that she is ineffective.
“Managers don’t have a long shelf life in today’s local politics,” Cooper said. “The days where managers were above politics and were just involved with garbage collection and stayed out of the papers, those days are over. It’s normal to have managers who lose their jobs.”
Or who leave on their own volition.
The job search firm Zippia, founded in San Francisco in 2015, stated in July that, based on over 2,000 resumes in its database, that 37 percent of city managers stayed on the job one to two years, 20 percent stayed three to four years, and 15 percent five to seven years. The firm also noted that 76.4% of city managers are white, and just 3.7% Black.
As Campbell is the city’s first and only Black manager, her termination or a lack of contract renewal could also put a spotlight on race, Cooper said.
“Certainly, race is going to matter in how whatever decision they make is perceived, particularly in a city that’s experienced more than its fair share of disagreements around race over the last few years,” Cooper said.
The removal of the Zebulon Vance obelisk downtown, which honored the Buncombe County native and Civil War governor of North Carolina who was a noted racist and slave owner, drew heated discussions in Asheville. So did the City Council’s vote to pursue reparations for Black people.
Cooper said council has to decide if Campbell’s performance has been problematic enough to warrant a termination of her service and start the complex process of searching for her replacement. That could leave a leadership void, and the city is not guaranteed to find a dynamic successor, Cooper pointed out.
“It’s not just Debra Campbell versus a perfect manager,” Cooper said. “It’s Debra Campbell versus what the market would allow right now.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.