Low morale cited in vote to fire Waynesville town manager
Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal was fired last week in a 3-2 split vote by the town board following a nearly two-hour closed-door discussion among board members.
The three-person voting bloc that ousted Onieal was made up of Aldermen Gary Caldwell, LeRoy Roberson and newly-elected 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 attitude she has brought to numerous community ventures.
“I think she has done an amazing job. She was appointed to take this town into the 21st century,” Phillip Gibbs said to the town board before they voted. Gibbs urged the town not to turn back the clock on progress just to appease disgruntled employees.
Onieal is also credited with modernizing town operations, implementing more professional protocols and expecting more out of employees.
“She had to make lots of changes. You can’t do that without ruffling feathers. If you do it without ruffling feathers, you probably didn’t do a very good job,” said Bob Clark, another community member who spoke in support of Onieal.
Onieal’s downfall has been that some employees didn’t like the changes she made or her management style, especially following the long tenure and laid-back style of former town manager Lee Galloway.
A broad cross-section of civic and community leaders rallied in support of Onieal in the weeks leading up to the vote, hoping to sway the outcome, both through public statements and behind-the-scenes lobbying of aldermen.
Meanwhile, however, town employees who don’t like Onieal were making their views known to aldermen privatelsy.
A personal fact-finding mission
Alderman Jon Feichter said he attempted to get to the bottom of the conflicting versions of Onieal’s supporters and detractors. At times, it was like diving down one rabbit hole after another, Feichter said.
But after talking to 50 current and former town employees, Feichter said Onieal’s management style has caused and pervasive and “troubling morale problem.”
“I believe it indicated an emerging, serious problem for Waynesville that might result in lost productivity from things like on-the-job disengagement and absenteeism,” Feichter said in a written statement that he crafted in an attempt to explain why he voted as he did.
Although Feichter is new to the board — the meeting where he voted to fire Onieal was his first real meeting — he spent over 100 hours on a personal fact-finding mission over the past two months as he contemplated what to do.
Feichter said several former town employees told him they quit or retired early because they didn’t like Onieal’s leadership style. Two more employees had threatened to quit last week if Onieal wasn’t fired Tuesday night.
“The sheer number of times I heard this kind of story coupled with my belief we hadn’t seen the end of it raised my concern that Waynesville was not being well-served,” Feichter said.
He said the decision was “gut-wrenching” and the most difficult he has ever made.
When Feichter was elected to the board in November, the deck was evenly stacked for and against Onieal. Caldwell and Roberson were resolute that she should go, while Brown and Freeman were equally resolute that she should stay. Feichter was instantly thrust into the limelight as the deciding vote.
“Positions were set in stone well before I was elected this past November,” Feichter said. “Most distressing was it didn’t appear to me that either side would ever change its stance. The longer this situation went on, the more intransigent each faction became. I was concerned that the division would continue and have a negative impact on our decision making going forward.”
Waynesville’s board has been known over the last couple of decades for its professional demeanor that has been mostly harmonious in its decision-making and devoid of infighting. There have only been three votes in the past four years that weren’t unanimous.
Caldwell, Feichter and Roberson were visibly shaken following their vote at last week’s town board meeting. Some of Onieal’s supporters in the audience cried out that their decision was “wrong” and it wouldn’t be forgotten politically.
Feicther is the only one who has talked about the rationale for the vote since the meeting.
Caldwell did not return messages seeking comment. Roberson said he was hesitant to talk about the decision because employee performance reviews are confidential.
There is a lot to the story that the general public doesn’t know, but Roberson said he can’t share specifics due to personnel privacy laws. He added Onieal did nothing wrong or improper, but that the issue was with her management style.
“I believe this decision is in the best interest of the town now and in the future,” Roberson said.
Feichter said he was cautioned against going on the record about the underlying concerns leading to his vote, but he chose to anyway because he feels town residents have a right to know why their elected leaders made the decision they did.
“By all accounts, Marcy was effective at the fine technical aspects of administering the town, but I believe there is more to the job,” Feichter said. “While Marcy’s tenure had its successes, I learned of troubling employee turmoil and our board wasn’t making progress. It was time to make a tough call and move on.”
A stacked deck
About two dozen audience members waited through the closed session of the town board last week to see what the outcome would be — about half in support of Onieal and the other half hoping she would be dismissed.
True to her straightforward approach, Onieal openly addressed what she called the “elephant in the room” prior to the town board members going into closed session.
“I stand today for the same values you said you wanted in a manager and that I have tried to consistently model throughout my entire career — transparency, openness, integrity, responsiveness to our citizens and businesses, commitment to best practices, fairness and equity in treatment of all our citizens and employees, with the energy and enthusiasm to keep moving our community forward,” Onieal told the town board.
Onieal questioned “personal agendas at work behind the scenes,” but said the last thing she wants is to be a lightning rod for the town.
Onieal said she and town employees have tried to carry on “amid rumor, speculation, half-truths, and innuendo,” but admitted it has been difficult.
A coalition of employees who don’t like her have been emboldened by having aldermen on their side and have disrupted the chain of command. Some began taking their marching orders directly from individual aldermen who were actively undermining her.
Onieal arguably had a tough row to hoe when she came on board four years ago. She was following in the footsteps of a beloved, long-time town manager, Lee Galloway. Employees accustomed to Galloway’s paternal nature had trouble adjusting to Onieal’s assertive style.
Onieal acknowledged this in a speech to over 200 employees at the town’s Christmas luncheon in December. Expectations are higher than they used to be, but the status quo wasn’t good enough to remain economically competitive and relevant in the 21st century, Onieal said.
“We must continually improve so that both the perception and the reality of Waynesville as an attractive place to live, work and play will continue on,” Onieal told employees at the luncheon.
Resistance to change is normal — “It disrupts routines, it creates fear of failure, and can feel like a personal loss or loss of tradition,” she said — but you can’t have improvement without change, Onieal said.
One of her comments alluded to the good old boy network that’s often institutionalized in small communities.
“The enemies of change are all those who have fared well, gained power, or achieved recognition under old conditions,” Onieal said.
At the town board meeting last week, Onieal said the “progressive and unified” reputation of the town was one reason she wanted to come to Waynesville.
“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,” Onieal told the board Tuesday night before their vote. “It is imperative that the five of you get back on the same sheet of music for the good of this community as soon as possible.”
That’s one point Onieal and the aldermen who voted to fire her agree on.
Roberson said the board has always worked well together and are naturally like-minded, so he hopes they will put this division behind them and move forward.