Macon goes local in picking new manager

fr rolandAt just 28 years old, Derek Roland might be the youngest county manager Macon County has ever seen, but what he lacks in age he makes up for in passion, enthusiasm, charisma, diplomacy, confidence and smarts — all the attributes of a natural leader.


Those qualities ultimately tipped the scale for Macon County commissioners when they named Roland as the county’s new manager last month.

“He absolutely looked everyone square in the eye and said ‘I know I am young, but I have the degree I need and the training for this job and I can do this job,’” Macon Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said. “That gave him a leg up.”

But the real leg up for Roland was likely his Macon County lineage going back several generations.

“He knows the culture of Macon County. He knows the needs of Macon County. He has a feel for the pulse of Macon County. That offsets any shortcomings on the experience side,” Commissioner Paul Higdon said.

Roland, who previously served as the Macon County planner, said nothing is more important to him than seeing Macon County prosper and he won’t let the community down.

“Everybody is scared to fail to some degree. But if I fail in this position it is not like I failed as county manager on the coast somewhere or in another state. I can’t just go back home,” Roland said.

“If I fail in this position, I fail the people who have helped make me into the person I am today. My family, my coaches, my teachers — it would be letting them down, and that is something I will not do,” he said.

Commissioners said they are confident Roland will rise to the occasion.

“He is a quick study. There is no challenge he has ever failed on,” said Higdon. “I am excited we have a young guy in there that has a passion for Macon County and a passion for performance and a fresh outlook.”

Roland’s first day on the job is Monday, Dec. 16.

His starting salary is $100,000. That’s $35,000 less than the salary of former Macon County Manager Jack Horton, who retired this year after a 30-year career as a manager for several counties.

Higdon said being able to save a little money for taxpayers on the county manager salary was a plus in Roland’s corner.

The county got 38 applications for the job. Commissioners narrowed the field down to four whom they invited for interviews.

Roland wasn’t necessarily everyone’s top pick at the outset. But he was the only candidate in the end that all the commissioners were able to support unanimously. And that was important to them.

“If you split your vote on the county manager it says, ‘Well, you have some people who didn’t really want you here to start with,’” Corbin said.

Roland told commissioners in his interview that he was willing to take the job without the protection of an employment contract. That is rare for a county manager, who can be vulnerable to the shifting political winds of local politics and election cycles.

But Roland told commissioners he was willing to let his performance speak for itself.

“He said, ‘Anytime it is not satisfactory, I’ll go down the road,’” Higdon said.

Commissioners said county staff are supportive of the selection and willing to show Roland the ropes in areas that are new to him — like managing the county’s $46 million annual budget or dealing with human resources issues across a staff of 364.

“We have some of the most experienced and well-qualified department heads around. They want to see Derek succeed, and I think they will tell you that,” Commissioner Ronnie Beale said. “He has the willingness to learn and be a quick study.”

Roland said he will definitely lean on department heads during his learning curve.

“They are very sharp and very capable,” Roland said.

Roland isn’t exactly a stranger to Macon County government, having served as county planner from 2009 to 2012. 

Despite protracted and polarized debate over steep-slope development regulations during that time, he emerged unscathed. As a neutral facilitator in the process, he provided the data, the research, the PowerPoint presentations, the pros and cons of various options — but didn’t try to pull the strings.

Roland said that’s how he sees his role as a county manager as well.

“A manager’s place is to work at the direction of the commissioners. The commissioners have been elected by the people of this county,” Roland said. “I have no personal agenda coming into this job.”

Roland said he will lead the county as efficiently and effectively as possible down the path commissioners lay out.

After three years with the county, Roland took a new job as Franklin’s town planner in early 2012. He also went back to school to get his masters in Public Policy Administration from Western Carolina University, complementing his undergrad degree from WCU in business administration.

Serving as Macon County’s manager is Roland’s ultimate career goal, not just a stepping stone. While he’s reached that goal early, he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. He built a house on his grandfather’s land and hopes to stay here forever.

“The things we do in Macon County will affect generations that follow,” Roland said.

He’s now got to prove himself, but has plenty of fans pulling for him.

“Derek feels a lot of pressure to do a good job, probably more pressure than if he wasn’t from here,” Corbin said.

By hiring Roland, commissioners were able to take a stand against the ongoing challenge of “brain drain,” Beale said. Losing the best and brightest young people is an often-discussed dilemma in local economic development circles.

“Hiring somebody local for this job is the best thing in the world,” Beale said. “Derek Roland has a real heart for this county.”

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