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One year in, Macon manager gets contract, praise from commissioners

fr rolandA surprise agenda item at this month’s Macon County Commissioner’s meeting put a smile on County Manager Derek Roland’s face. Just shy of his one-year anniversary on the job, the 29-year-old county manager was given a contract for his position. 

He had been working on a month-to-month basis, an unusual situation for a county manager. But Roland said he purposely left a request for a contract out of his bid for the manager’s job last year, when he was working as Franklin’s town planner. 

“I wanted a contract to be something I earned rather than something I was given,” Roland explained. 

Commissioners decided he had earned it, voting unanimously to approve the contract in their last meeting before Commissioner Ron Haven’s term ends and Commissioner-Elect Gary Shields’ begins.

“He’s probably one of the only county managers in the state that’s not working on a contract,” said Commissioner Jim Tate, who spearheaded the contract. “Their position can be very volatile, especially during election time, because the makeup of our board could have changed in the last election.”

It didn’t — Commissioner Ronnie Beale won his seat back to remain the lone Democrat on the board, while Tate kept his seat against a Democratic challenger and Haven will be replaced with another Republican — but Tate felt the time had come. 

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“You were literally thrown into the fire with several things going on in the county, and you’ve handled it with style and class,” Tate told Roland at the meeting. “You haven’t handled it in any different of a way than what we would have expected or wanted you to do.”

To be clear, the contract does not protect Roland from being fired or jack up his $100,000 salary. What it does do is provide him some cushion should the board decide to let him go. Namely, six months’ salary and benefits.

 

The first year

Tate admitted that he was a little nervous about hiring Roland. At 28, Roland was significantly younger than the average county manager when he dropped off his application. There was a lot of life experience he hadn’t had yet, a lot of mistakes he hadn’t had the chance to make, a lot of institutional knowledge he hadn’t had time to gather. But he was a Macon County native, a graduate of Franklin High School and Western Carolina University with several years of planning under his belt, and he was clear in his pitch to commissioners that this was both a job he wanted and a job he could do.  

“There’s a certain amount of humbleness and integrity that you can see in his eyes when we were interviewing applicants,” Tate said. “That far outweighed, in my mind, experience.”

Roland starting gathering some experience pretty quickly once he got the job. Within a month of his first day, news broke that $50,000 had been embezzled from the county’s Board of Elections. The crime triggered a State Bureau of Investigations probe that is still in progress and resulted in the resignation of then-Director Kim Bishop, whose signature had allegedly appeared on the fraudulent checks. 

“I don’t know what kind of word to use to describe it,” Roland said of the situation.

“He handled it with class,” Tate said. 

At the same time, the county was facing an impending property revaluation that meant making some hard choices in the budget. Beale commended Roland’s proposed 2014-15 budget, which called for a 3.4 percent reduction in spending from the previous year. Beale said he “couldn’t be more pleased with how that was handled.”

Roland himself said he’s happy with how the Parker Meadows project is going — so far the $3.8-million baseball tournament park is coming in under budget — and said that discussions he’s been having with county employees about how to change the health plan to something less expensive are going well. 

“We have made the employees part of that process, and they’ve been very receptive and very understanding of the situation,” Roland said. 

In fact, though Roland was happy to give his highlight reel from the past year, each bullet point was interspersed with some complimentary comment to his staff. 

“[Employees] are this organization’s biggest asset, and I rely on them heavily because that is such a knowledge base,” Roland said. “We’re talking about people who have been here 20, 30 years, who have local knowledge that is irreplaceable.”

 

Youth as an asset

Knowing who he’s working with has caused Roland to conclude that his youth isn’t a disadvantage to his ability to manage the county. 

“The thing I’ve learned more than anything are the answers to the questions are here,” he said. “The answers to the questions lie in the employees who have been here for 20 years and the answers to the questions lie in organizations like the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.” 

That philosophy is one of the things that has made Roland such a great manager, Tate said. 

“If he has something that he’s not 100 percent sure on, he asks for advice,” Tate said. “He’s not a bull in a china shop. He’s very careful about the steps he takes.”

Really, Roland said, he’s found his youth more of an asset than a disadvantage, simply because of the enormous investment of time it takes to manage a county. 

“It’s not a 40-hour-a-week job,” Roland said. “It’s a lifestyle, and there’s many times you’ll be clocking out at midnight. There’s many times you’re up working on projects for the next day well into the night hours, and at 29 I have the energy to do that and come in the next day with a smile on my face, ready to do that work.”

Roland turns 30 on Dec. 6, and he hopes to be on the job for many more years to come. And he’s working on a legacy that lasts longer. That’s what has him so excited about the new landfill he’s working on with Chris Stahl, director of Solid Waste Management. 

“We’re talking about giving the citizens of Macon County a place to continue disposing their waste for 60 years in the future, so being a part of something that affects not only today’s generation but generations 30, 40, 50, 60 years down the road in my home community, the community I was born and raised in, I can’t say how much that means to me,” Roland said. 

Roland says that public service is his “calling,” and that he knew “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that he wanted to be a county manager — in particular, a Macon County manager — since he first started working for the county in 2009. Having gotten his wish, he plans to stay for as long as the board of commissioners gives him a job. 

Of course, that’s a group of people that changes with every election, but as far as the five who hired him are concerned, there’s no reason for him to go anytime soon.

“He knew that he could do it. He just needed to prove himself to us,” Tate said. “We wouldn’t trade him for anything now.”

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