MECKENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Longtime Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones often reminded the public that he served at the pleasure of county commissioners.
But interviews with nearly a dozen past and present board members and other civic leaders suggest he got fired last week because he failed to adjust his style and priorities to match those of his newly elected bosses – a board pushing a platform of change.
His strong will, loyalty to lieutenants and determination to keep messy internal disputes out of the public eye had made him a good fit for past boards and chairs.
Those once-admired traits, the interviews revealed, became liabilities that brought Jones’ nearly 13-year run as manager to an inglorious, televised end.
Behind closed doors Jones upbraided commissioners, failed to answer their questions and kept information hidden from them, four current board members said.
“I think there was a lack of understanding about who works for whom,” said Republican Commissioner Karen Bentley, who was part of the bipartisan 6-2 majority that voted Jones out.
Jones disputes that version of events.
In his first extensive public comments since Tuesday night’s firing, Jones told the Observer that he did not berate commissioners, keep information from them or fail to communicate.
He said he tried to work with newly elected board Chairwoman Pat Cotham, a Democrat, and other board members, but eventually she refused to meet with him and stopped talking to him about her thoughts and plans.
“Our communication was limited to text or email,” Jones said.
Around Christmas 2011, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent treatment. He said he never missed a workday because of the illness, and he strongly denied suggestions from some that his health slowed down his response to commissioners’ requests or otherwise affected his job performance.
“It’s offensive to me to say that my doctor’s appointments got in the way,” Jones said.
He pointed to a November 2012 job evaluation by the commission’s Compensation Committee that says Jones “exceeded the performance standards for the job.”
But even his staunchest supporters acknowledge Jones never won over a new board that took office soon after his evaluation. They were elected after promising voters they would restore trust in government. A botched property revaluation last year brought widespread criticism.
“New board members brought about a change in attitude that was resisted by management,” Republican Commissioner Bill James said. Jones and his team “didn’t understand there was a new sheriff in town.”
Rise to power
Supporters and critics of the ousted county manager agree that Jones, 63, is smart and politically savvy.
He worked in Mecklenburg County government for more than two decades – and as manager since 2000. He oversaw a $1.3 billion budget and more than 4,000 employees. And the commission-manager form of government allowed him to put his personal stamp on the county.
Under the arrangement, commissioners are supposed to set policies and the manager carries them out.
In reality, the manager wields tremendous influence because commissioners work only part time and must rely on staff for information. The manager makes all personnel decisions and annually proposes a budget.
Observers said Jones delegated authority to senior staffers. When criticism arose, he often shielded them by telling his bosses “the buck stops with me.”
Jones is credited with guiding the county through the recession while keeping Mecklenburg’s AAA bond rating intact. A building boom during his tenure yielded new jails and a nine-story courthouse in uptown Charlotte.
And yet, Jones also repeatedly found himself under fire in recent years for missteps by his administration, including the flawed 2011 property revaluation and misspending and disruption in the Department of Social Services.
Commissioners publicly chastised Jones in February 2011 for not telling them about a $60,000 settlement with Grayce Crockett, the county’s former mental health director.
Commissioners also complained earlier this year that they were “blindsided,” as Cotham put it, when the state threatened to reassign oversight of millions of dollars in Medicaid money from the county-run MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare to another agency based in Kannapolis.
When Jones initially defended the property revaluation, James said it raised new questions about his leadership.
“People start questioning the competency of management,” he said. “You start wondering what else is wrong.”
Typically, the commissioners’ chair and the county manager work closely together to set the board agenda and offer feedback on issues.
Jones and Cotham, who was elected in November, became adversaries.
She recalled an email conversation with senior staffers and other commissioners this year after the Medicaid oversight flap.
In one of her emails, she said she was shocked that management did not keep her better informed. Cotham said that led to a face-to-face confrontation with Jones in which he warned her about putting critical comments in emails.
“He said, ‘How dare you do this. Don’t you know that the media might get this?’ ” Cotham recounted.
Cotham said she responded: “Well, if they do, they do. We need to be transparent. ... Let’s get this straight: We work for the people and you work for the board.”
Jones and Cotham also clashed over the agenda for the board’s annual retreat, she said.
Cotham said she and some other commissioners wanted to hear about the budget and other major issues. Jones paid for a consulting group, she said, to educate board members on how to get along with staff – “Kumbaya stuff,” Cotham called it.
Later, she said Jones suggested bringing back the consulting group. When Cotham balked, she said Jones told her, “Well, I’m going to do it anyway because you need it.”
Five commissioners then decided they had scheduling conflicts and the meeting with the group was canceled, Cotham said.
Once, Cotham said she told Jones: “I certainly hope your subordinates don’t treat you like this.”
“There was no respect for us,” she said, referring to the commissioners.
Former Mecklenburg County Manager Jerry Fox, who hired Jones as an assistant in 1991, is friends with Jones and had nothing critical to say about him.
But those interviewed suggested that Jones may have forgotten what Fox used to always remind his staff and himself.
“A lot depends on the elected people, what they expect and what their style is. They’re elected by the people; they’re the board of directors,” said Fox, who had six changes of party control and 10 different chairs during his 20 years as county manager. “If you’re a manager, you need to find out what their style is, and adapt yours to theirs. If you can’t, you leave.”
Bentley, who has been on the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners for seven years, said the board bears part of the blame for what she considered a lack of responsiveness from Jones and his staff.
“I think we enabled that behavior,” she said, pointing to the property revaluation as an example.
Former Cornelius Town Board member Jim Bensman, who helped lead protests that pushed commissioners to fix the flawed 2011 revaluation, said Jones opposed addressing the problem.
Until Cotham and the five other commissioners voted to fire Jones, “nobody was standing up to him,” Bensman said. “He could tell the commission what he wanted instead of them telling him what they wanted from him.”
Commissioners often lack knowledge about the intricacies of government bureaucracy. That, Bensman said, allowed Jones to exert great influence over their decisions.
“There is a fortress mentality” that Jones cultivated among county staff, Bensman said. “There is an ingrained culture that will have to be addressed.”
Carroll Gray, past president of the Charlotte Chamber, said he has known Jones from his early days in government. He said he never saw Jones undermine commissioners’ authority, but gradually over the years “he developed a defense mechanism against criticism.”
“It manifests in some ways that made him very sensitive to criticism all the time,” Gray said.
Former Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat who served from 2006 to 2011, said Jones was responsive to her demands.
“I could text Harry and he’d text right back,” Roberts said. “He’d step out of meetings to take my calls. He always treated my communications as urgent, as you would with a boss.”
But she acknowledged that Jones showed anger toward commissioners in November when they denied him a pay raise even though the board’s Compensation Committee wrote in a report that his performance qualified him for a 3.5 to 4.5 percent pay hike.
“He let his emotions run away with him,” Roberts said. “It was rare when I saw that kind of pride well up. But sometimes, instead of counting to 10 and responding when he was calm, he took it personally and wanted to fight back.”
Roberts also suggested Jones’ cancer diagnosis as a possible job performance factor. “In the last year, with the time he had to spend with the doctor, responses (to commissioners) might have been slower,” she said.
Supporters back Jones
In a phone interview, Jones told the Observer that despite his health concerns he took phone calls, responded to email and did other work while at doctor’s appointments for treatment.
Jones said he feels well and is “cautiously optimistic” about his health.
After Cotham became board chairwoman, he said he reached out to her. He said he explained to Cotham that he and Roberts would gather the day of board meetings to go over the agenda and any other issues that might emerge. Jones said he suggested to her that they follow the same practice.
“I told her, ‘I would like to have that relationship with you,’ ” Jones said. “That relationship never occurred.”
Asked whether he berated commissioners or acted aggressively toward them, he said “that’s news to me. That’s not my style.”
Jones also denied that he blocked commissioners’ access to information. He said he openly encouraged them to speak with county department heads and other administrators when they had questions or needed documents.
“My style is to be very open with the board,” Jones said.
Parks Helms, a Democrat who had worked closely with Jones as a five-time chairman of the Board of Commissioners over the years, said he tried to play peacemaker early in Cotham’s term. He invited Cotham, whose campaign he had supported and contributed to, to meet with him and some other past Mecklenburg commissioners after a Democratic luncheon.
“I wanted to suggest to her that, ‘Pat, you can be a better chair if you will develop a relationship with Harry Jones where you can talk to him, give him the direction you want to go, what you would like to see in this budget, but then let him to do it,’ ” Helms said.
Cotham showed up at the meeting, but she brought two other Democratic commissioners – Vilma Leake and Trevor Fuller – with her.
The gathering ended up fueling the growing acrimony: Cotham took it as criticism of her and said she told Helms that “if we keep doing things the old way we’re going to get the same results.”
And, at the next board meeting, Leake publicly charged that a former commissioner – she later said it was Helms – had “humiliated” Cotham and told Leake “to shut up.” (Helms said he may have pointed at Leake during their heated exchange, but denied he used those words.)
Jones ‘at peace’
But there were signs – including protests over the revaluation and complaints to commissioners – that the public was souring on Jones because of controversies surrounding county government in recent years.
In November, Mecklenburg Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander abruptly resigned. He was the target of taxpayer anger over overvalued properties. An outside firm found dozens of flaws in the 2011 appraisal.
Jones later reassigned Alexander to the county’s finance department as a senior fiscal analyst, taking a nearly $24,000 pay cut – a move that brought criticism.
Jones said he has been unfairly criticized for not firing Alexander. The county commissioners appoint the tax assessor and by state law only the board can dismiss the tax assessor, Jones said.
Jones also said he was following orders from the board when he assigned Alexander to a new job.
His own firing did not come as shock to Jones. He said he first learned his job might be in jeopardy in January. The next month, Jones said a commissioner – whom he did not name – told two county staffers they had the votes to fire him.
He denied reports that commissioners offered to let him retire instead of firing him. He said officials did not attempt to negotiate a settlement with him.
Under his contract, he will receive six months’ salary and benefits because he was terminated without cause. In 2012, his base salary was $246,138, with total compensation at $297, 795.
Now that he is gone from county government, Jones said he is upset his staff is “being dragged through the mud.” But he expressed pride in his record of accomplishments – including improvements to the county’s greenway system – and a reputation for efficiency and effectiveness. And though his tenure ended in acrimony, he said he remains happy, even relieved.
“I am at peace in my soul,” he said. “I am not bitter. Not one bit.”