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Waynesville town manager fired in narrow vote of board Tuesday; Supporters question motives of those who ousted her

haywoodWaynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal was fired Tuesday night in a 3-2 split vote by the town board following a nearly two-hour closed-door discussion among board members.

The three-man voting bloc that ousted Onieal was made up of Aldermen Gary Caldwell, Leroy Roberson and newly elected Alderman Jon Feichter. Mayor Gavin Brown and Alderwoman Julia Freeman voted in support of Onieal, but were in the minority.

Several community members spoke to the town board prior to the vote, urging them to recognize the progress and advancements Onieal has made not only in her management of the town but also the get-it-done spirit she has brought to numerous community ventures. Onieal is also credited with modernizing town operations and implementing more professional protocols and systems.

Onieal’s downfall has been that some employees didn’t like the changes she made or her management style, following the long tenure and laid-back style of former town manager Lee Galloway, who retired four years ago.

It was Feichter’s first official meeting as an alderman after just being sworn in last month. Despite never working with Onieal, he formed his opinions by interviewing employees who don’t like her. He was also urged to get rid of Onieal by Caldwell and Roberson, who had pinned hopes on Feichter getting elected to give them the third vote they were lacking to dismiss Onieal.

About two dozen audience members waited through the closed session to see what the outcome would be — about half in support of Onieal and the other half hoping she would be dismissed, including a few of Feichter’s family members and employees of his computer service company, New Meridian, which used to be the town’s technology contractor.

None of the aldermen discussed the decision or the issue publicly before or after the vote. A couple members in the audience said that the decision was wrong and was rooted in a personal vendetta.

True to her straightforward approach, Onieal openly addressed the subject prior to the town board members going into closed session.

Onieal said she would have preferred to engage in substantive, direct dialogue with the town board members who wanted her gone, rather than the “rumor and speculation and innuendo” that she and town staff have been operating under.

Onieal questioned whether the town employees who have been working against her would be satisfied with anyone other than the long-time former manager Lee Galloway.

“I can’t change my gender. I don’t yet have a 20-plus year relationship with town employees. And I can’t miraculously turn myself into Lee Galloway,” Onieal said.

“What I can offer you as town manager are those qualities that four of you saw in a grueling town manger selection process four years ago when you said ‘she’s the one.’ Those are the values of transparency, openness, integrity, responsiveness to our citizens and businesses, commitment to best practices and the fair and equitable treatment of all our employees,” Onieal said.

Onieal was not invited to sit in on any portion of the town board’s closed-door personnel discussion. The following are some excerpts of her comments to the board before they entered closed session:

“The media attention surrounding my continued employment with the town of Waynesville has become an uncomfortable distraction. The last thing I ever wanted was to become a lightening rod for the town of Waynesville.

“Regardless of what personal agenda may have been at work behind the scenes and regardless of where each of you may stand in regard to my leadership of this organization, it is imperative that the five of you get on the same page. I am asking you affirmatively to deal with my employment status tonight so we can all move on one way or the other.

“Waynesville has a reputation of being professional and unified as a board and that’s one reason I wanted to come to work here. A unified board is a rarity in today’s political environment. I know that even though the five of you did not always naturally agree on the issues that were before you, you worked hard to reach consensus.

“I love this community for the same reasons you do and plan to stay here, no matter what the outcome is tonight. Regardless of whether you decide to change coaches tonight you have a winning team ready to serve this town with integrity and honor.”

 

The following article appears in this week’s print edition of The Smoky Mountain News, which went to press Tuesday afternoon.

 

Two Waynesville town board members wanting to get rid of the town manager were prepared to bring the issue to a head at the town meeting Tuesday night.

The outcome of the meeting was not known as of press time Tuesday afternoon.

“I am hopeful that what we are going to do is talk as a board. We have not done that yet. And so that is what I hope is going to happen,” said Alderman Jon Feichter prior to the meeting Tuesday. 

Whether a vote to fire Town Manager Marcy Onieal would transpire following the discussion was unknown. Since it is a personnel matter, it will be discussed confidentially during a closed session. Any vote following the discussion would be held in public, however.

Mayor Gavin Brown was hesitant to guess what the outcome of Tuesday night’s meeting would be. 

“I can’t forecast what the result of this discussion might be,” Brown said. To run through the possible scenarios would be like “jousting with windmills,” Brown said.

Brown supports the job Onieal, now in her fourth year as manager, has done for the town. So does Alderwoman Julia Freeman. 

However, Aldermen Gary Caldwell and LeRoy Roberson are not supportive of Onieal. That makes Feichter the swing vote in the issue. Feichter was just sworn into the board last month following his election victory in November.

A plan to replace the town manager had apparently been in the works for months prior to the election, but neither Caldwell nor Roberson talked about it publicly.

Instead, their campaign centered around Waynesville’s progress and accomplishments. They touted the town’s stellar reputation — not only for its excellent quality of life but also for being professionally run.

They pledged to “stay the course” and “keep the ship afloat.” They even touted the congenial atmosphere that evaporated the day after the election, when attention suddenly turned to getting rid of the town manager. 

“This question about Marcy’s future with the town has been hanging over everybody since the election. I suspect every one of us wants to put this question to rest one way or the other,” Feichter said. “It is not good for anybody.”

Caldwell and Roberson were emboldened by hopes that Feichter would be the missing piece of the puzzle they needed to get rid of Onieal.

They didn’t have the votes before, since three of the five aldermen supported Onieal.

That dynamic changed when one of Onieal’s three supporters on the board chose not to run for re-election.

Feichter won the open seat and promptly found himself in the hot seat as the swing vote.

Feichter said Caldwell and Roberson would like to vote to get rid of Onieal as soon as possible. However, he denied that they are pressuring him to weigh in before he is comfortable doing so.

“Ultimately this decision — however it comes down — is mine and mine alone,” Feichter said. “All of my fellow board members have encouraged me to make my own decision and do my due diligence and come up with what I think is the best decision.”

As for how he would come down if Caldwell and Roberson forced a vote on the issue Tuesday, Feichter said Monday night that he didn’t know yet.

“My decision right this minute is unmade,” Feichter said, adding however, “I am rapidly approaching that point.”

Although Feichter has been in office only a month and attended only one town meeting in his new capacity as an alderman, he has devoted significant time talking to more than 40 town employees — including seven department heads — to assess Onieal’s leadership. He has also met extensively with Onieal.

The dissatisfaction some aldermen have with Onieal seems to be less about her actual performance and more about her management style. Some employees have become disgruntled with Onieal’s leadership approach.

Brown questions the storyline portrayed by those wanting to replace Onieal and questions why Feichter is being expected to weigh in on such a major issue so promptly upon taking office without more time to digest the town’s operations.

“If the scenario that is being described by Gary and LeRoy is true, that morale is so low and the town is absolutely falling apart, there is some immediacy,” Brown said.

But that’s not the case, in Brown’s opinion. Brown borrowed a line from Feichter, one he used often in his campaign.

“Perception is reality,” Brown said. But, “I am beginning to wonder if in fact his perception may be wrong. He is hearing things I disagree with. His perception of the world is different than mine at this point in time.”

If those pushing for a vote call the question at the town meeting Tuesday night, only one thing is certain about the outcome.

“I completely understand that my decision, no matter what way it goes, will upset half the people,” Feichter said.

Feichter said one thing he has learned during his talks with town employees is there are often competing versions of any given story.

“Many of the people who would get angry no matter how I decide don’t know the full story,” Feichter said.

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