County department heads pointed to an organizational culture of cliques and anxiety during a meeting with Buncombe County commissioners on Sept. 4 (see avl.mx/5aq for the full video of the meeting). The gathering mirrored recent citizen input sessions hosted by commissioners to identify key characteristics desired in the next county manager.
“I think there is definitely still a feeling of fear in the organization,” Kathy Brady, the county’s director of Information Technology, told commissioners during the workshop at 200 College St. “There is definitely a disconnect between this building and the rest of the organization. This is a very insular type of place. … We don’t see you guys. There used to be a barrier between us and you, but we don’t see much of you.”
“We know what the last decade was like, if not longer, of reprisals and acrimony,” Commissioner Ellen Frost said at the beginning of the session. “I know that if you’re in a toxic environment it’s hard to shed that.”
Brady said it wasn’t part of the county’s culture for employees to visit the county’s downtown headquarters, where commissioners have office space, to speak with elected officials.
“It may be different for the people who are in this building all the time … but for those of us who aren’t, it’s like we’re making a statement that we’re coming to talk to you,” Brady said, “and I think that is something we would be questioned on probably by some people still here now.”
For a long time, staff said, there was a sense that employees were divided into “in groups” and “out groups.” “You’re either in the in group and everything’s fine and dandy,” said Curt Euler, director of employee benefits and risk management, “but if you’re in the out group, look out.”
Euler said the next manager needs to build a culture of teamwork. “We as a group, as managers, we don’t all relate together, we’re not all on the same page,” he said, “and I think for us to be really effective … we have someone who is team focused and that treats everybody with respect and doesn’t necessarily have favorites.”
Brady, meanwhile, believes it’s time to get back to basics. “We need to focus on the organization, the basics of the organization,” Brady said. The majority of the money pumped into the county’s coffers, she said, funds the core services provided by county departments. “I don’t think there’s enough focus on those core services. You guys have your agendas. We’re just trying to get the work done.”
Getting back to basics, however, shouldn’t detract from the county’s commitment to collaborating with grassroots organizations and nonprofits in the community, said Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships. “I would worry that a time of austerity could get in the way of that progress we’ve made when we work together,” she said.
Deputy Finance Officer Dustin Clark said staff in his department wants a county manager who’s familiar with procurement law. Clark said he’s also looking for someone who understands that county data ultimately belongs to the public. “It’s not about crafting a message or hiding behind loopholes in public records laws,” he said, “but getting that information out and making it easy and accessible.”
Despite messaging that has portrayed the county as fiscally healthy, staff said, some departments have struggled with chronic shortages in staff and resources, while the longer-term outlook reveals a need to increase revenue or reduce services.
“When I came over into this position, I saw incredible disparity and incredible levels of need,” Assistant County Manager Jim Holland, who previously served as the director of health and human services, told commissioners. Staffing needs at county libraries were particularly dire, Holland said. “Had it not been for the passion librarians have for libraries, we would not be open.”
Departmental needs, Holland said, were also at a critical level in the Parks and Recreation Department and the Planning and Development Department, where budget needs left employees sitting in 20- to 30-year old wooden chairs that were, Holland said, “one step away from an ADA legitimate lawsuit.”
On top of everything else, Holland said, the county’s financial condition isn’t as rosy as officials like to think — a reality he said interim County Manager George Wood has been careful to emphasize. “We all like to talk about what great fiscal shape we’re in,” Holland said. “Well, we’re not. We’re going to have to face reality in terms of our fiscal condition, and that’s either going to be you’re going to have raise taxes or there’s going to have to be reductions.
“We’ve lived in this fallacy world of, ‘Let’s budget $15 million in fund balance and then aren’t we great managers because we don’t spend it?’ and yet that’s not reality.”
It will take a “master manager” to come to terms with the organization’s needs, Holland said, and department heads, staff and citizens will need to be patient.
“Because that new manager is not going to be able to fix everything,” he said.
Since his appointment in June, George Wood has provided a valuable blueprint for how a county manager should act, staff told commissioners.
“I think most of us in the room would say, ‘Why would George want to retire?’” said Tax Assessor Keith Miller.
Wood met one-on-one with department heads when he started his temporary tenure with the county, and directors told commissioners Wood has demonstrated sophisticated knowledge of specific aspects of governance and quickly identifed departmental needs.
“It’s going to take a man like him [to make things better],” said Pat Freeman, the director of county identification, pointing at Wood. “So if you can clone George Wood, I say do it.”
Wood said officials hope to have a decision about the county manager position by December. Wood’s contract with the county ends in February 2019.