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In search for new Waynesville town manager, acting skills are a plus

fr townmanagerTown manager hopefuls wanting to run one of Western North Carolina’s largest, most progressive towns will need more than budget know-how and political savvy — they’ll need stage presence, improv skills and nerves of steel to make it past the final round.

Candidates applying to be Waynesville’s next town manager will have to navigate tricky and delicate role-playing scenarios before an audience of judges, like settling a pretend dispute between a disgruntled employee and their supervisor.

They’ll also get locked in a room, presented with a municipal challenge and have to formulate a plan to address it, such as how to make the town more business friendly.

“The candidate will sit in there and have three hours to write it up,” Waynesville’s Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan explained.

Finally, they’ll be asked to develop and deliver a mock presentation on a real issue facing the town, such as a firefighter shortage.

All the while, they’ll be sized up by a panel of evaluators consisting of real experts in the fields of human resources, finance, law enforcement, public works and so on, brought in from around the region to help with the assessment. 

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Putting candidates through these paces may seem excessive, but it’s the only way to really know who’s right for the job.

“I can sit here and tell you I can handle a situation but until you see me do it, you don’t know if I can or not,” Morgan said. “It is becoming very common to have these types of assessments.”

To help with the monumental hiring process, the town board has engaged the services of a consulting firm. The firm will advertise the job opening, sift through dozens and dozens of applications, and cull out the top 15 to 20.

From there, the list will be turned over to the town board to narrow down further. Only seven or so will advance to the next round of vetting involving role-playing skits.

Those who perform well will make the last and final round: grueling interviews with the town board itself.

Waynesville is lucky to have Morgan on board as it delves into the hiring process. He’s something of a pro at hiring town managers. After retiring as the long-time town manager of Weaverville, Morgan has done four stints as interim manager.

And naturally, everywhere Morgan lands on the interim circuit, hiring a full-time manager tops the to-do list.

While Morgan hasn’t actually made the hiring decisions — that’s up to the town board or city council — he’s had a front row seat in the process.

Mayor Gavin Brown said Morgan has already offered some safe advice: the goal isn’t simply to find the most-qualified, experienced candidate.

“At the end of the day, the board has to find that good fit,” Brown said. “They could fit for what Asheville needs or what Black Mountain needs, but it is about hiring the person that is right for you.”

Morgan warned Brown that if none of the finalists seem like “the one” in his opinion, he will be brutally honest and tell the board they should go back to the drawing board.

Brown said he’s thankful for that.

“Waynesville is the best community in the world. We aren’t looking for a caretaker,” Brown said. “If we don’t get a good pool of applicants, we’ll try again.”

But if all goes well, a town manager will be in place by mid-August.

The town will pay consulting firm Developmental Associates $14,000 for guiding the process. 

The town board is putting faith in the firm to chose wisely when winnowing down candidate in the preliminary round. More than 90 percent of the applications could get tossed out before a short list is handed up to the board of aldermen. But the North Carolina-based consulting firm chosen by the town is skilled in match-making and is no stranger to what makes Waynesville tick.

“They know Waynesville and the region very well,” Morgan said. 

Brown said despite the heavy lifting done by the consulting firm in winnowing and pre-vetting applicants, the board has an active role to play as well.

As the board of aldermen charted out the hiring process during a town meeting last week, Brown pulled out a bulging binder — the portfolio with dossiers on all the finalists in the last manager hiring process four years ago.

“We’ve got a lot of work in front of us,” Brown said, gesturing to the binder. “We need to be prepared to give it the time necessary to make sure Waynesville gets what it deserves.”

The last town manager, Marcy Onieal, was selected with flying colors four years ago — winning universal support from the consulting firm, the town board itself and the role-playing evaluators.

During her four-year tenure, Onieal is credited with modernizing town operations, implementing more professional protocols and expecting more out of employees.

What seemed like progress was also her downfall, however. Some employees didn’t like the changes she made or her management style, and Onieal was besieged by disharmony in the ranks.

She was abruptly fired in January after the majority on the town board shifted in last fall’s election. 

Morgan has already sought input from employees on the traits they like to see in their new town manager.

“We got the town staff involved right out of the box, so it will be a collective decision,” Brown said.

Despite the controversy and split vote over Onieal’s firing, the town board is in lock step as it moves forward.

“Even though we disagreed on some things, we still want what is the best for the town of Waynesville,” Brown said.

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