Still trapped by the delicate dance of a new town manager, Waynesville’s Marcy Onieal faces a double-edged sword daily
Marcy Onieal had mighty big shoes to fill when she walked through the doors of Waynesville’s town hall four years ago as the new manager.
For nearly two decades, the town had hummed along comfortably under the guiding hand of Lee Galloway. He was easygoing, affable, paternal — a boss people were happy to work for their entire careers. It was an easier era then, too. Budgets were flusher, the town was smaller, expectations of government were lower.
That’s a luxury Onieal wouldn’t get, and wouldn’t particularly want anyway. Onieal thrives when faced with a challenge, and she took her marching orders to heart.
“When I was hired, I was specifically asked to bring the organization into the 21st century,” Onieal said. “I was immediately tasked with taking on many significant culture-changing projects within a short period of time under extremely difficult economic and organizational conditions.”
Waynesville, like any institution with longevity, was a slave to its own legacies.
Galloway still personally signed every paycheck — more than 150 of them, every payday. Electric crews still used hand-drawn maps of the power grid. There was no routine evaluation of employees.
Onieal ushered in more modern practices and protocols, and raised the bar on what was expected of employees.
But it didn’t sit well with some.
“People learn to do business in their jobs in certain forms or fashions, and when you implement a new or additional requirement or idea they may say ‘I don’t see the value in it,’” Mayor Gavin Brown said.
Brown said it is a legitimate human reaction.
“From an employee’s perspective, they say ‘I have been doing this for 20 years. Does the value of what you’re asking me to do outweigh the change?’” Brown said.
Sometimes, the answer might be no — the turmoil of the change may outweigh the benefits.
And that’s the soul-searching the town of Waynesville has landed in as the town board weighs whether to keep Onieal.
To Alderwoman Julia Freeman, the changes Onieal has made have been necessary for the town’s continued progress and growth.
“The initiatives we have asked her to do, she has done a great job making those come to reality,” Freeman said.
But it has cost Onieal support among some employees, who’ve complained not-so-subtly around town.
“Change is difficult. There are those who are willing to accept changes and those who are not, and I think that is what we are facing right now,” Freeman said.
The majority of the town board — Freeman, Brown and former Alderman Wells Greeley — has supported what Onieal was doing.
“We are trying to make Waynesville a first-class, first-rate outfit,” Brown said.
But two aldermen — Gary Caldwell and Leroy Roberson — have been sympathetic to employees’ complaints. While neither would confirm they want Onieal to go, citing personnel matters, they are poised to force a vote on whether to dismiss Onieal (see related article.)
Onieal’s fate now seems to rest with the one new alderman who has joined the board following last month’s town election, Jon Feichter. Feichter is a huge Galloway fan. He believes the town was in great shape when Onieal took over — not a train wreck that needed fixing, he said.
“I’d say it was in great shape,” Feichter said. “And I think Lee Galloway was a great town manager.”
But he recognizes the difficult landscape Onieal walked into.
“It would be foolish to think any new manager could immediately come in and pick up where Lee left off, in terms of how he was doing it and what he was doing,” Feichter added. “Some change is inevitable.”
And even if Galloway had stayed on another five years, some of the changes would have come anyway.
“Some things would have changed regardless who the town manger was,” Feichter said.
Galloway was the right manager for Waynesville at the time, Brown said. He moved Waynesville ahead by leaps and bounds, assembling a good team of employees who carried Waynesville for a quarter of century.
“They provided a lot of value to this community,” Brown said.
But the stable of long-time managers that worked along side Galloway were on the road to retirement already when Onieal came in. Galloway was the first of five cabinet-level employees — including department heads and middle-managers — poised to hit retirement over a three- to four-year span.
“She has dealt with changes in long-term employees who retired and pushed this organization forward,” Freeman said.
But to some, it seemed like even more change, because each new hire to upper-level positions brought with it new titles, tweaked job descriptions and more new faces to get used to.
Incidentally, Galloway faced equally rocky times when he first started — including employee pushback against change and a crusade by some town board members to fire him. Galloway narrowly survived an attempt to oust him two years into his tenure and went on to serve as town manager 18 years, even winning over those who at one time were against him.
Onieal has been here four years now but hasn’t shaken the label of “new” town manager. It’s tough to be a newcomer in a small town, where street cred comes from remembering the name of long-ago burned down diners or how many people you recognize in the obituaries.
Onieal has faced yet another sensitive dynamic. As she ushered in changes — whether it was restructuring the public works department or creating a new nepotism policy — some long-time employees took it as an indictment of how they’d been doing things.
Why change what’s not broken? It was also an affront to those who deeply admired Galloway, who felt any stab at improvements carried the unspoken message that the way Galloway did things wasn’t good enough.
Brown said that sentiment is misplaced.
“The comment has been made 100 times we hired her to move us on into the 21st century, that has no commentary on the job of the previous administration who got us through the 20th century,” Brown said.
Onieal isn’t one to coddle, however. She had little patience for internal politics and expected employees to get on board, yet respects that people respond to change differently.
“Change is difficult for most people regardless of the circumstances,” Onieal said. “Most of our employees have responded exceedingly well and have proven themselves to be employees of outstanding competence, skill, integrity and heart — true public servants committed to giving this community their all.”
During year-end reflections at a town board meeting last week, Onieal ran through a “greatest hits” list of accomplishments during the past four years, as well as challenges the town has had to overcome.
It was a daunting and tiring list, one Onieal described as a “tall order” and “tremendous challenge.”
“We have charged her to implement a lot of new initiatives and programs, and she has done that,” Freeman said.
Onieal has a no-nonsense, brass-tacks, analytical style that some aren’t used to, especially in a women in a small Southern town. A workaholic by nature, Onieal is faster-paced, more formal, more business-like than employees were used to.
“I think Mrs. Onieal has done exactly what we hired her to do and accomplished that. I think the problem is her style of doing things is what irritates people — not what she has done,” Brown said.
Brown said there should be more focus on Onieal’s performance, outcomes and results, not how well liked she is by employees who would have preferred a clone of Galloway.
“We can’t be running a popularity contest for our town manager,” Brown said.
Freeman questioned whether anyone could have lived up to Galloway in some employees’ eyes.
“It is difficult to step into any position where someone has been there for a long time before you who did things a certain way,” Freeman said.
Still, some say Onieal should have gotten more buy-in from employees before forging ahead with new practices. But others claim it was a losing battle to try.
Disgruntled employees with a direct line to two of the aldermen — Caldwell and Roberson — are clearly at the root of Onieal’s trouble, some of whom continue to stir the pot of dissent even though they retired or moved on.
With 170 town employees, it’s hard to know whether the handful of complainers represent the majority — or if they are a vocal minority with a bone to pick.
Brown said that question may be moot.
“Most revolts are started by the minority of people,” Brown said.