Waynesville town board divided on whether to keep town manager
A move afoot by two Waynesville aldermen to push out Town Manager Marcy Onieal might seem incongruous with their campaign message in last month’s town election.
Four of the five town board members ran for re-election on a shared, similar platform.
With campaigns collectively centered on Waynesville’s progress, they touted the town’s success and pledged to continue the course. And despite a deep bench of challengers, all four who ran for re-election were voted back in.
But behind the scenes, a different narrative was playing out.
Two town board members were apparently displeased with Onieal and were already looking ahead to Election Day when a change on the board could flip the dynamic and give them the third vote they needed to push out Onieal.
It would all depend, however, on who snagged that fifth seat on the board and which camp they sided with.
Onieal has been safe in her job until now thanks to backing from three of the five board members — Mayor Gavin Brown, Alderwoman Julia Freeman and Wells Greeley.
Meanwhile, Aldermen Gary Caldwell and Leroy Roberson aren’t going on the record publicly against Onieal, citing personnel laws.
“I can’t get into any depth because it is a personnel matter right now,” Roberson said.
But it’s widely believed that Caldwell and Roberson want to dismiss Onieal.
When Greeley chose not to run for re-election, it set a new dynamic in motion: if the other four all got back on, they would be split two-to-two on whether to keep Onieal.
That’s landed Jon Feichter, the new guy on the town board, holding the swing vote on whether Onieal stays or goes.
“I was asked almost as soon as the election was done to weigh in on the question of support for the town manager,” Feichter said.
Even before Feichter was sworn in, a rumor began circulating through town that a vote would be held at his very first meeting on whether to keep Onieal.
It would have been both awkward and unusual for the board to promptly take up the issue the same night they got sworn in, mere moments after they’d all taken the oath of office with their hand on a Bible and family members at their side.
And it would have cast an uncomfortable pall over the farewell reception being held for Greeley that night — a punch bowl and holiday goodies were on a table in the lobby for after the meeting.
Still, the rumor that a town manager vote might occur that night persisted, enough to turn out a small crowd at the meeting. But no such vote occurred.
“As a newcomer to the board I didn’t feel like I had enough information to make an informed decision at that point in time,” Feichter said. “As an outsider, I heard lots of rumors and innuendo and comments. Since the election I have tried to essentially educate myself on the dynamics of that question.”
Feichter said he’s continuing in that mode.
Asked whether the town has been on the right track the past four years, Roberson said yes. Asked whether that reflects well on Onieal, Roberson instead gave credit to employees and the legacy of former town manager Lee Galloway.
“Momentum has carried the town forward. The foundation for that was set,” Roberson said.
The divergence on the town board over Onieal’s leadership is uncharacteristic. Caldwell and Roberson, despite their lack of support for Onieal, have been in lockstep with the rest of the board on nearly every vote over the past four years.
There’s been no indication — at least in their voting record — that they felt the town was headed in the wrong direction under Onieal. Onieal has never proposed an initiative they voted against.
If Onieal is dismissed or forced to resign, the town would owe her six months of pay, plus more than three months of accrued sick, vacation and leave time, according to the terms of her employment contract. Onieal makes $112,000 a year, which is less than Galloway was making when he retired.
How things will go from here isn’t clear.
Caldwell is pushing for action sooner rather than later.
“I would like it to happen pretty fast,” Caldwell said. “Our board is going to have to meet and get on the same page.”
But Caldwell said in the end it will likely come down to majority rules.
“That is about the only way to get this settled,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell’s eagerness to call for a vote on Onieal signals confidence on his part that he has the three votes it would take to dismiss Onieal.
Feichter, however, pledged that he would try to ensure the process is fair and deliberate, and that whatever decision is made is in the town’s best interest.
“I believe that this process, this question hanging over everyone, needs to be answered as soon as we possibly can. It is not good for the board, it is not good for the town, to have this question hanging over everybody,” Feichter said. “That being said, I don’t feel the need to rush into the decision. It will take as long as it takes.”
Alderman Leroy Roberson appears to be as resolute as Caldwell, but allowed that Feichter should get the time he needs to think about the question being asked.
“I think he is going to analyze it and look into it. That’s a good idea. He certainly needs to look at it,” Roberson said.
Feichter said he is hearing from people on both sides of the issue, and admitted it is hard in a small town to make objective decisions with personal relationships at play and people he respects on both sides.
“One of the joys of living in a small town is you know everybody,” Feichter said. “Can I completely disassociate any kind of personal feelings from my decision making? I am not sure I can go that far. But I also think that I can make a decision that doesn’t or isn’t overwhelmed by personal feelings.”
Meanwhile, Onieal said she loves her job and hopes to keep it.
“I love this community for the same reason 10,000 other residents want to call Waynesville home, and I am committed to serving this community and leading the town organization for as long as I can be effective and my service is desired,” Onieal said.
As for what the future may hold?
“Since the board has not yet discussed with me any specifics regarding rumors surrounding my continued employment with the town, I simply cannot speak to what their thinking may be at this time,” Onieal said.