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Jackson County begins county manager search

jacksonIt’s been two months since Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten announced his impending retirement, and county commissioners are beginning the search for their perfect match to take over the reins.

“This is a decision that will have lasting impact for months and years to come,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “You want to make sure you have the right fit.”  

The first step in the search is to figure out what they’re looking for, and commissioners spent an hour during their last work session discussing and ranking the qualities they’d like their new county manager to have — guided by David Nicholson, a former Henderson County manager and outreach associate for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. The job profile, just finalized March 8, is the result of that discussion. 

Commissioners decided that they’d be willing to hire someone without a master’s degree — though an advanced degree is preferred — but will require a bachelor’s degree in some field related to the job description. They’re requiring at least five years of management experience in local government, with a North Carolina-based resume preferred. 

In their rankings, commissioners exhibited a strong preference for a manager who’s strong in the soft skills — developing relationships with staff, commissioners and other governments; being present in the community; comfort with public speaking and oral presentations. 

For instance, in the five-point scale they used to rate how important different attributes might be in a new manager, they gave “community presence” a 4.8. They gave having a good relationship with commissioners a solid 5. Team building and staff development also received a 5 average, while intergovernmental relationships came in slightly lower, at 4.3.

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“You clearly want someone who can work with your department heads and work with your community,” Nicholson told commissioners after looking at their ratings. 

As far as the harder, more technical skills, commissioners made it clear that they need someone who’s good at budgets and finance — that category received a 4.5 average — but are more flexible when it comes to areas such as land use planning, economic development and infrastructure. Those categories received a 3.8, 3.6 and 3.5, respectively. 

“You’re looking for someone who’s a good, rounded individual,” Nicholson said. 

Commissioners expect to start looking at the first round of applications in early April, likely creating a committee to winnow down the field to the top five or so candidates, who commissioners would then interview in person. 

No salary range for the position has been set, with the number to be negotiated on an individual basis. It’s also unclear whether the top slate of candidates would be made public at any point, or if the selection process would proceed in closed session until a decision is made. 

“You’re going to get a lot of applications of people who are currently employed,” Nicholson said. “There are some counties or cities who will say, ‘At some point in time we’re going to go public with who’s there.’ That tough on a lot of folks.”

Jackson County is not the only North Carolina government searching for a manager. There are 43 counties and municipalities in the state currently seeking a manager or assistant manager, so Jackson leaders are expecting to see some competition for talent. 

Not all of those 43 positions are analogous to Jackson, however. Most of them are municipalities — only four are counties. Of those four, Catawba and Vance are most similar to Jackson in terms of size and population. 

Even in the face of competition, Nicholson encouraged commissioners about their prospects. With the job not yet advertised, he said, he’s already been getting calls from potential managers interested in learning more about Jackson County.

“You have a wonderful community here with a lot of resources, and you need to let people know that,” he said. 

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