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What’s next in the Waynesville town manager debate

haywoodWaynesville leaders interviewed two potential candidates Tuesday night to serve as an interim town manager following the dismissal of Town Manager Marcy Onieal.

Despite rumors that former town manager Lee Galloway would return as the interim town manager, he is not one of the candidates. 

The town board also discussed a transition plan and the need to come together going forward, despite their division over whether to fire Onieal. 

“We have disagreements at times but this is a time when we really, really need to be on board together,” Mayor Gavin Brown said to the rest of the board. “We are elected individually but we operate as a board. The vote is over and we need to go on. I know you all well enough to know you will all do that.”

With Onieal’s last day rapidly approaching, the town will bring in an interim manager to hold down the fort until a permanent manager can be chosen, a process that will likely take six months.

The termination of Onieal comes at a critical time of year. Late winter and early spring is when town managers prove their mettle in the complex, rigorous and technical process of crafting a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year — arguably one of the most important roles of the town manager, not only to ensure the core needs of the community are met but also the special initiatives and projects that advance the town.

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Who’s being considered

The town manager candidates being considered are: 

• Robert Hites, the long-time city manager of Statesville. He retired from Statesville in 2012 after 15 years there and has served as a local government consultant and interim manager since then, including the interim manager of Monroe for 10 months. 

• Michael Morgan, the long-time town manager of Weaverville. He retired from Weaverville in 2010 after 18 years there, and since then has taught local government courses for WCU’s master’s degree in public affairs and has served in interim capacities at Sylva, Marshall, and Weaverville.

It was a surprised to some that former town manager Lee Galloway wasn’t one of the candidates being considered.

Some aldermen have stayed friends with Galloway since he retired and were in communication with him regularly leading up to the vote to fire Onieal. Galloway has done stints as interim manager at other towns in the region since his retirement four years ago.

Galloway’s institutional knowledge of town operations would have offered a convenient short-term fix, especially given the critical budget time. But Galloway is not among the candidates.

The town board will likely make a decision next week.


A costly decision

Firing Onieal will cost the town over $100,000. Her contract entitles her to severance package equal to a year’s salary — which is  $112,000 — plus benefits.

The cost is double what it would have been if the three aldermen who voted to fire Onieal had simply waited until May. Onieal’s contract called for six-months severance pay — but it jumped to a year’s pay if she was dismissed within the six-month window following the election of new board members.

Alderman Jon Feichter who cast the deciding vote was just elected in November, but said firing Onieal couldn’t wait until May due what he perceived as the institutional costs of keeping her.

“Consider the costs incurred to hire and train new employees due to turnover or those resulting from the drag on productivity related to slumping morale,” Feichter said.

Onieal’s contract terms and severance pay aren’t uncommon for town and county managers.

Shifting political winds often besiege town managers, county managers, and even school superintendents, and the generous severance guaranteed in their contracts provides a cushion against the fickle nature of local politics.

“I knew when I signed on here, that I could walk in on any given day, and that if three of you didn’t like the color of my hair, or what I was wearing, or an election occurred that upset the equilibrium and you just wanted someone else in my place, that with three votes, I would be gone,” Onieal said to town board members last week before the 3-to-2 vote to terminate her came down. “You don’t need a reason to fire me, you just can.”

The circumstances surrounding Onieal’s dismissal could be a turn off to some potential town manager applicants, Brown said. Some candidates could be gun shy about coming into a job where the town manager was fired because of her leadership style and personality, and on the heels of an election that changed the board make up.

“A lot of people are going to see that as controversial,” Brown told the rest of the board Tuesday night. “You aren’t going to want to walk into a situation that is potentially going to be controversial. We need these potential applicants to know we walk arm and arm and serve this community arm in arm.”

It’s also important for the town’s reputation, Brown said.

“The citizens of Waynesville and the adjoining communities look to us as a guiding light and we need to continue to be that way,” Brown said.

Onieal’s last day is Jan. 29, a date chosen by the three aldermen who voted to fire her. A going away reception is planned at town hall from 1 to 5 p.m. on her last day.

Onieal said she loves Waynesville and does not plan to leave.

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