Voters will ultimately decide if firing was a mistake
Former county commissioner, mayor and longtime Haywood County political player/observer Mary Ann Enloe was dead on in her column last week about the firing of Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal (www.themountaineer.village-soup.com/p/marcy-onieal-is-a-classy-lady-who-will-be-fine-so-will-the-town): it was a bad decision by aldermen, but Waynesville and Onieal will survive this small-town political firestorm. Both have too much going for them.
Enloe writes for The Mountaineer, which published a series of articles prior to the Jan. 12 firing — but after the election — that left no stone unturned on this issue. Smoky Mountain News reporter Becky Johnson wrote two stories in our Dec. 16 edition (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/16869) which also covered the crux of the issue, which was this: Onieal’s management style and her work to modernize many town practices were pissing off employees, including powerful department heads who had been with Waynesville for decades. Those who voted to fire her say these and other employees were going to quit if Onieal stayed on the job. So they canned her.
I don’t vote in Waynesville but my business is located here, and I have spent the better part of my professional life working in and around downtown. I’ve been here as a journalist through three Waynesville town managers (soon to be a fourth), and from the outside looking in Onieal appeared to be doing things right during her four-year tenure. Waynesville is thriving and is a fantastic place to live and work.
I won’t even try to pass judgment on the job she was doing. Anyone who is in a workplace knows there are too many subjective standards to weigh when making decisions about hiring and firing, especially for those of us who know little of the town’s “company culture,” that unwritten code that permeates every organization and is way more important than all that gobbledygook in the employee manual. Perhaps Onieal was asking too much, making too many changes too fast. In my experience, though, most companies suffer more from not making changes rather than from making too many.
Some have called those who voted to fire Onieal disingenuousness. During the campaign — at least during public statements — LeRoy Roberson, Gary Caldwell nor Jon Feichter said this was a referendum on Onieal’s future. Those of us who follow town campaigns heard whispers, but none of those running for office made an issue of the manager, but instead said she accomplished the objectives she was given. Voters who took them at their word and read campaign stories and who listened to them at campaign events were blindsided once it became obvious right after the election that this was in the works all along.
Voters have short memories, and the hiring of a competent and professional town manager will assuage many questions that right now are so pressing. But a seed of doubt, of mistrust, has been planted, and the question is whether it will grow? Since the firing of Onieal was obviously in the works prior to the election and candidates did not discuss it with voters, are there other pivotal issues that will be handled similarly, quietly and out of the public earshot? Let’s hope not. Whether one supports Onieal for or not, there’s little doubt this could have been handled better.
And, I can’t help but ask another question related to this issue, one that is near and dear to my heart: just as I believe the aldermen who voted to fire Onieal were less than open with voters, did the media — The Smoky Mountain News included — fail in its duty to the voters of Waynesville by not bringing up the issue prior to the town election?
Look, at this newspaper we pride ourselves on trying to dig below the surface to let readers know what is really going on, a characteristic that doesn’t always win us friends. In this case, we had heard that this scenario might occur, that a Feichter win could lead to Onieal’s firing. We didn’t find a way to get that into print prior to the election. Whether that would have changed any of the outcomes is questionable, but it certainly will renew our commitment to give readers all the information as early as we are able.
Going back to Enloe’s column, I agree that the town will move on beyond this, that it will survive this firestorm. What’s controversial today will be tomorrow’s history.
And I think Onieal will be fine. She is professional, smart, straightforward, and gets results. In the business world, those traits are much desired; in local government, that kind of attitude is often interpreted as upsetting the apple cart.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective.