CHARLOTTE, N.C . -- Months into a search for a new Mecklenburg County manager, the hunt has taken a contentious turn.
Friday morning, when a committee of four county commissioners meets in closed session to discuss 16 applicants, five colleagues will be shut out.
The exclusion is likely a first for the county. Marvin Bethune, county attorney for 35 years, said he can’t recall when commissioners were excluded from a meeting.
It took a special meeting Monday and a 6-3 vote from the entire board to revise a 10-year-old policy to exclude the five from the closed sessions. The revision also excludes them from receiving information on the first batch of applicants to replace longtime manager Harry Jones, whom the board fired in May.
Board Chairwoman Pat Cotham, who also heads the search committee, said the exclusions are appropriate and necessary. The county-hired executive search firm, she said, promised the applicants that their resumes would only be shared with committee members.
“We have 16 candidates who are very concerned about confidentiality – many are in high-profile jobs and they have their current jobs to protect,” Cotham said. “If the best candidates want high confidentiality, we have to respect that.”
Friday, the committee will begin ranking and culling applicants. Cotham, a former executive recruiter, said they are “a very impressive group of people” from across the country.
She noted the board decided in June that a bipartisan committee would oversee the recruitment process. And, according to minutes of the June meeting, the committee was to work with a search firm, Coleman Lew + Associates of Charlotte, to settle on “three-four finalists, who would then be interviewed by the full board.”
Yet last week, when the committee – Cotham and commissioners Bill James, Karen Bentley and Vilma Leake – met with Coleman Lew representatives to receive resumes, Vice Chair Kim Ratliff also attended the meeting.
That was when the firm told committee members that they’d promised only to share applications with them. Under the unrevised policy, Ratliff was within her rights as a commissioner to stay in the meeting and didn’t leave. That prompted Monday’s revisions.
At the Monday meeting, Bethune told commissioners that they had two choices: They could accept the revisions, or they could refuse to change the policy and Coleman Lew would have to tell the applicants that their information would be seen by all nine commissioners.
Committee members expressed concern that some candidates would drop out if more commissioners were included.
Ratliff and commissioners Trevor Fuller and George Dunlap voted against the policy change. Fuller let the board know he was upset that the entire board would not have access to all the information.
Some commissioners say he stormed out of the meeting angry after the vote. “I did leave briskly and purposeful,” he said.
Fuller is upset that the full board hasn’t even “had a conversation” about what traits in a manager commissioners are looking for.
In July, Ratliff drew criticism when she said she preferred the county manager not be a white male. She quickly clarified that statement and ultimately apologized, saying she was encouraging a diverse list of applicants.
Cotham has told commissioners that the list is very diverse and well-qualified.
Fuller said he appreciates why early applicants would want confidentiality, but he questioned who gave the search firm permission to tell them that their information would only go to four commissioners and not all nine.
At the board’s first meeting last month with Coleman Lew, Fuller asked if the full board would have access to all materials from applicants.
The search firm deferred to the committee for a response, minutes of that meeting show.
Cotham responded they would, the minutes show. “Just like we did with the (new county tax) assessor, we saw the other ones that weren’t chosen.”
“I raised the issue again on Monday and said we’d been told we’d have access,” Fuller said Thursday. “I’d be a fool to sign onto a policy excluding myself to information.”
He said he was told by two members of Charlotte City Council that all council members had access to all applicant information in their recent hunt for a new city manager. Same was true, he said, for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school members in their search for a new superintendent.
Fuller suggested to commissioners that the five members not on the committee could sign a promise of confidentiality. He said he got no response.
The revised policy, he said, “is unwise and potentially dangerous. I need to be satisfied there has been meaningful input by commissioners not on the search committee into the search for our new county manager. I don’t feel very good that there is a dark period for five excluded commissioners in this search.”
He said the full board needs access to all information to judge whether the committee chose the right three to five finalists. He called the search misguided. The board had set an informal deadline of hiring a new manager by Oct. 15.
“Here we are in the end of October and this search is not going well,” Fuller said. “We have to go to reorient ourselves so that we get this right. We keep going forward ... and getting assurances that everything is going to be all right in the end.
“How will we know if five members of the board haven’t had full access to all the information?”