The town board has been at the epicenter of a contentious, three-month debate over whether to keep or replace Town Manager Marcy Onieal. Despite the divided 3-to-2 vote to fire Onieal earlier this month, Mayor Gavin Brown said teamwork and unity is now paramount as the board embarks on a search for a new manager.
“This is a time when we really, really need to be on board together,” Brown said during a town meeting last week. “We are elected individually but we operate as a board. The vote is over and we need to go on.”
Brown turned to each of the four aldermen, calling on them by name to seal the truce.
Aldermen LeRoy Roberson, Gary Caldwell and Jon Feichter — the three who voted to fire Onieal — gave Brown a symbolic nod of agreement, as did Alderwoman Julia Freeman, who, like Brown, wanted to keep Onieal.
“We need to work together,” Roberson added.
The 3-2 vote on Onieal’s termination was out of character for the Waynesville town board. Nearly all their votes are unanimous, and in the rare instance they aren’t, those who break rank usually offer an apology of sorts before casting their dissenting vote.
The town’s reputation for sound and stable leadership has been an important ingredient in Waynesville’s success. Brown doesn’t want to jeopardize that reputation.
“I know the citizens of Waynesville and the adjoining communities look to us as a guiding light and we need to continue to be that way,” Brown told the other board members.
Brown said he feared some would-be applicants for town manager may be gun shy about the dynamic they would be walking into. Although Onieal was smart, driven and skilled as a manager, she was rebuked for her strong management style that was off-putting to some long-time employees.
The nature of Onieal’s dismissal so quick on the heels of a town election that altered the board’s majority could be a strike against the town in attracting experienced managers to apply, Brown said.
“A lot of people are going to see this as controversial,” Brown told the rest of the board Tuesday night. “They aren’t going to want to walk into a situation that is potentially going to be controversial.”
To assuage that fear, the board needs to be unanimous in its decision of who to hire, Brown suggested.
“We need these potential applicants to know we walk arm in arm and serve this community arm in arm,” Brown said.
Brown said that’s the board’s job after all — to represent the community as a whole, not a particular constituency, special interest group or party.
An interim in the wings
The town board met last week to discuss a transition plan. With Onieal’s last day rapidly approaching at month’s end, the town will bring in an interim manager to hold down the fort until a permanent manager can be chosen, a process that will likely take six months.
The town board will decide in coming weeks whether to hire a consulting firm to recruit candidates, process applications and narrow down the best fits.
In the meantime, the town board interviewed two candidates for interim manager for about 40 minutes each last week.
Despite rumors that former town manager Lee Galloway would be asked back as the interim, he is not one of the candidates. Galloway was a well-liked town manager who had a 20-year tenure during something of a Golden Age for Waynesville.
While his institutional knowledge of the town would offer a convenient short-term fix, it could have exacerbated the strain on employees being torn by pro- and anti-Onieal camps.
Both candidates being considered have long tenures as town managers in the western part of the state but are now semi-retired, aside from various consulting and interim manager positions here and there.
“We were very impressed with both their demeanors and styles,” Brown said following the interviews, adding they are both well qualified to be interim.
The town board will pick one of them at its meeting Tuesday night (Jan. 26.)
The two candidates being considered are:
• Robert Hites, the long-time city manager of Statesville. He retired from Statesville in 2012 after 15 years there, and has served as a local government consultant and interim manager since then, including the interim manager of Monroe for 10 months.
• Michael Morgan, the long-time town manager of Weaverville. He retired from Weaverville in 2010 after 18 years there, and since then has taught local government courses for Western Carolina University’s masters program in public affairs and has served in interim roles in Sylva, Marshall and Weaverville.
Once an interim is picked, the town board will meet Wednesday with an adviser from the N.C. League of Municipalities who specializes in town manager hiring process to get an overview of the different approaches it can take and decide on a process. (That meeting will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, at town hall.)
“The folks at the League will get us kick-started, so we’ll all be on the same playing field,” Brown said.
A public, drop-in reception for Town Manager Marcy Onieal is planned at town hall from 1 to 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29. Onieal said she loves Waynesville and does not plan to leave.