According to Asheville’s Open City Hall website, the city manager should serve as the CEO, while the mayor and City Council operate like the board of directors. Under the council-manager form of government, the elected officials set policy goals and priorities and then select the city manager, whose job is to transform those directives into concrete tasks for the more than 1,200 municipal employees.
But the city’s current approach to hiring a new manager suggests a different metaphor: After its divorce from Gary Jackson, Asheville is ready to start playing the dating game again. And like a lovelorn friend filling out an OkCupid page, the city is seeking advice on how to complete its profile for the position and attract a partner who understands its particular desires. City staff have even hired a matchmaker, the Texas-based consulting firm Springsted|Waters, to provide further guidance throughout the search.
The process is expected to stretch over a full three months, however, so the city isn’t rushing into a commitment that could set the tone of its administration for the next decade or more. Jackson, for example, had served as city manager since 2005 before being fired in March in the aftermath of a police beating scandal. And the legacy of Weldon Weir, the city manager from 1950 to 1968, still resonates today through his leading role in such projects as the Asheville Regional Airport and the municipal water system.
“It’s not every day that you hire a city manager,” says Jaime Joyner, assistant director of the city’s Human Resources Department. “Ultimately, the decision is going to be with City Council, but we’re going to try to get as much input as we can. We want to hear from residents about what they want in a city manager.”
The search kicked off May 10 with a public input survey that ran through May 27. The brief questionnaire, available online through the Open City Hall forum and in paper copies at city recreation and community centers, consisted of two open-ended queries. One asked what skills and leadership qualities the ideal city manager should have; the other inquired about groups, teams and organizations the manager should be aware of. “We really wanted to not tell the residents what they should want,” notes Joyner, adding, “They’re very open-ended questions.”
In addition, city staff hosted four workshops where residents could raise their concerns directly. Back-to-back meetings took place in the afternoon and evening of May 10 at the Skyland Fire Department in South Asheville; a May 19 morning session convened in the Public Works Building downtown, and a May 24 evening event was held at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center.
Those sessions were lightly attended: The two Skyland events drew a total of 10 residents, another six took part in the downtown gathering, and eight came to the Southside get-together. Joyner, however, says the city is open to further engagement as needed. A comment hotline remains open at 828-259-5900; input can also be emailed to email@example.com.
City staff got their own chance to weigh in on May 17, with three sessions throughout the day to accommodate employees working different shifts. Joyner’s own preference is for a visionary with a creative approach to the city’s growing pains.
“We know we’re experiencing growth; we know we have, in some areas, competing priorities,” she explains. “We need someone who can come in, look at those things strategically and say, ‘OK, how can we do our best to meet this group’s needs and also that group’s needs?’”
The city’s Communication and Public Engagement Department, says Joyner, will summarize the results of all the input sessions and publish a report of its findings. The idea is to confirm the public’s priorities before they get incorporated into the profile for the job posting. Actual recruitment is slated to begin by early June.
Words of wisdom
Emerging from the different strains of public input is a consensus that the new city manager should be highly skilled in the bedrock of all healthy relationships: communication. Multiple commenters pointed out the job’s unique position as the bridge connecting elected officials, city staff and community groups. Transparency and a willingness to foster broad citizen involvement in the city’s decision-making were also identified as key criteria.
In a representative response to the online survey, resident Eric Jackson summarized his take on how the new manager should approach the job. “Asheville needs to join other leading cities, both in the U.S. and abroad, in fully embracing the imperative to build solutions with, not for, the community,” he wrote. “To enable this, Asheville’s government must learn to operate with full transparency, allowing processes to unfold publicly rather than simply presenting results formulated by staff behind closed doors.”
Several survey respondents, including resident Mike Lewis, said the new manager should be willing to venture beyond the walls of City Hall in an effort to understand Asheville’s needs. “To borrow management guru Tom Peters’ phrase, the new city manager should practice ‘management by walking around,’” wrote Lewis. “Go out and see where the potholes are. The new manager should be visible at venues other than Council meetings.”
At one of the Skyland sessions, David Carr, who works as the Asheville Way facilitator for the city’s Human Resources Department but was attending as a private citizen, said that some of the city manager’s most important communications involve explaining the workings of government to Council members. As an unofficial “chief education officer,” he explained, the manager helps elected officials who don’t necessarily have an administrative background understand their responsibilities.
“People on Council run on two or three specific issues, and then they get into it and find out they’ve got this $180 million budget and 14 different departments,” said Carr. “I think that’s a key responsibility of the city manager, to help people who come on Council understand the complexity of their job.”
A number of commenters, however, took issue with the survey’s second question, which asked about prospective community partners. “This question assumes that the average Asheville citizen can list multiple groups, teams and organizations currently operating in Asheville. This is a question for insiders and makes me wonder how much the survey writers value the input of the average citizen,” wrote one anonymous resident. “The city manager should be eager and capable of working with ALL groups, teams, organizations and departments within the city.”
Another unnamed resident said the groups the new manager should be aware of include “all the ones NOT on other respondents’ lists. She should never be satisfied with a pat list of ‘stakeholders’ but should understand that all our residents are stakeholders in our city, and should work to make sure we all feel listened to, respected and valued by our local government.”
Casting the net
At least some of those opinions will find their way into the materials that will be assembled and distributed by Springsted|Waters. The consultants will place ads in professional publications, on websites and in local print media. They’ll also post the position on their own website, send it out to a custom mailing list and reach out personally to potential applicants who aren’t actively seeking new employment.
Using an outside consultancy will help the city reach the widest possible range of candidates, says Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, citing the firm’s extensive experience with city manager recruitment. “We think it was important to make this a national search,” notes Wisler, who’s coordinating the effort. “Knowledge of the community and the city’s culture can be a real benefit; on the other hand, [local candidates] sometimes don’t have quite as much of the benefit of experience from how other cities do things.”
Although Springsted|Waters staff could not be reached for comment, the company’s proposal to the city listed a broad range of positions it has recruited for in the past, including eight for North Carolina municipalities since 2013. Work for Tar Heel cities of at least Asheville’s size has included Raleigh’s city manager position, Cary’s town manager and a Greensboro assistant city manager.
That expertise comes at a price, however. The estimated $24,500 fee covers 150 hours of work, including advertising the position, identifying and screening candidates, conducting reference and background checks, and facilitating face-to-face interviews with finalists.
The cost is in line with that of other, similar recent searches. In 2017, Springsted|Waters charged Virginia’s Albemarle County $24,000 to recruit former Asheville Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson as its county executive; the same year, Asheville paid The Hawkins Company, a California-based consulting firm, $25,000 to recruit Kimberlee Archie, the city’s first equity and inclusion manager.
The final cut
By late June, Springsted|Waters is supposed to have assembled a list of candidates and weeded out those who are obviously unsuitable; City Council will then further winnow the pool by reviewing resumes, assisted by a panel of key community leaders who’ll offer their own recommendations.
Panel members, notes city staffer Polly McDaniel, a communications specialist, were chosen by Council to ensure “inclusion in terms of gender, ethnicity and the variety of type of organizations, from businesses to nonprofits to our county and partner agencies.” And although Council will hold the ultimate decision-making power, she says, the community group will provide an additional level of public input.
Interviews are slated for July 23-27, followed by final selection and due diligence during the week of July 30-Aug. 3. The new city manager is expected to be announced in August and begin work in October or November.
Wisler says she’ll be paying particular attention to the candidates’ experience in creating collaborative programs. “I believe that government in the modern age, we can’t do everything by ourselves,” she explains. “It’s important that we build and create and encourage partnerships with citizen groups, business and other government agencies.”
Mayor Esther Manheimer, meanwhile, stresses the need for a sometimes unconventional approach. “We’re a progressive city, interested doing some things outside of the box,” she says. “I think the role of cities is changing and evolving … and we need someone willing to embrace that.”