Raleigh council fires City Manager Russell Allen

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com dbracken@newsobserver.comApril 17, 2013 

  • Change and growth during Allen’s tenure

    Raleigh’s population has grown about 50 percent during Russell Allen’s 12 years as city manager. City government has grown, too – although the payroll shrank during the recent recession, after peaking above 3,000 workers several years ago.

    Population276,093 (2000 census)416,468 (2011 estimate)
    Area118 square miles144 square miles
    City budget$284 million$681 million
    City employees2,7802,722

  • A look at Allen’s time as city manager

    February 2001: Raleigh hires Allen, then city manager in Rock Hill, S.C..

    April: Allen begins work as Raleigh city manager, making $140,000 a year. Among his first tasks is hiring a new police chief.

    January 2004: To save money, Allen proposes to replace twice-weekly backyard garbage pickup with once-a-week curbside collection. Over criticism from residents and sanitation workers, the City Council approves the switch.

    August: Citing concern over the amount of money spent on consultants, the City Council limits Allen’s authority to approve such contracts.

    February 2005: After an inch of snow clogs city and county roads, Allen lays out plans to avoid gridlock during future snow storms. His suggestions include pre-salting roads even for forecasts of "flurries," new salt barns and salting equipment, more frequent city updates to radio stations, and better communication between schools and parents.

    September 2006: More than 50 sanitation workers walk off the job after disputes over working conditions and uncompensated hours. Allen meets with workers to discuss grievances, but they complain he is slow to act on problems. An agreement with workers is eventually reached, which includes additional manpower, compensation for overtime, and an evaluation of garbage routes.

    November: Sanitation chief Gerald Latta says he is forced to retire and calls himself a "scapegoat" in the city’s trouble with sanitation workers. Latta says he warned Allen and other city leaders over impending labor and equipment problems, but was ignored.

    August-September 2008: Allen wants local developer Greg Hatem, who promises to build a 15-story hotel on a city-owned lot, to pay $50,000 toward the cost of widening downtown streets before the city grants him an extension on the project. The council overrides him and grants the extension. The deal falls through in May 2009.

    January 2009: Allen tells the Triangle Community Coalition that lean economic times may lead to an era of small local government and a reduction in services.

    April 2010: Allen tells the city council how he believes the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center can be built without raising property taxes, the most controversial element of the construction project. The project is eventually scrapped.

    April 17, 2013: The City Council terminates Allen’s contract, effective June 30.

    Staff writer Brooke Cain

— City Manager Russell Allen, who steered Raleigh through 12 years of growth and recession, was fired Wednesday in a 6-2 vote by the Raleigh City Council.

Council members expressed a desire for “a new direction” but offered little else to explain their action.

“He certainly worked very hard,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in an interview. “He was very dedicated to the city. But we need a different skill set now, to move the city where we’re going.”

The vote came one day after Allen’s 12th anniversary on the job. He will work through June 30, three months into the final year of his contract, and the city will pay him the remainder of his $232,000 salary through March 30 next year.

“Just as Raleigh has grown and changed, so have the skills needed to manage and grow the city,” the City Council said in a news release. “We are excited and look forward to the new possibilities and insight that a new city manager will bring us, and we are grateful for all the work Russell has done as well.”

Allen, 61, was fired without cause. City Council members were loath to criticize him, but several said the city manager had communication problems.

“I think everybody knows we’ve had some issues on communication within the city staff and with the council,” McFarlane said. “Twelve years is a pretty long time for a city manager, and we’re a very different city than we were 12 years ago. I think he was the perfect city manager for that time. Now we need a fresh set of eyes.”

Council members Mary-Ann Baldwin and Eugene Weeks cast the only votes against firing Allen.

“I feel great loyalty to Russell, but my colleagues want to go in a different direction,” Baldwin said. “I think Russell did a great job for us. We are in great financial shape. Russell took us through the recession without cutting services to residents. He negotiated a great deal for the city on the Dix property, but of course we’ll see what comes of that.”

A native of Biloxi, Miss., Allen came to Raleigh in 2001 after eight years as city manager in Rock Hill, S.C. He is a former marathon runner known for keeping long hours in the office, often working into the evening and coming in over the weekend.

Allen did not respond to an interview request Wednesday but issued a statement expressing gratitude for his time here.

“Raleigh has a very engaged citizenry and I hope they feel that I have been respectful, accessible and responsive,” Allen said. “Raleigh is one of the most successful cities in the country and is poised for even greater achievements. As much as I will miss this job, I am thankful for the experiences and confident in the city’s future.”

Years of growth

He is only the fifth man to serve as city manager since 1947, when Raleigh adopted the council-manager form of government. Two others had longer tenures, including his predecessor, Dempsey Benton, who held the job for 17 years. But Allen has presided over more growth than any of them, with the city adding 140,000 residents and 20 square miles of territory since 2001

Allen pushed controversial policy decisions that backfired on the City Council and had to be reversed or abandoned, including a 2008 ban on new home garbage disposals and the proposed construction of a $205 million, 17-story public safety center.

Council members and city residents were caught by surprise when sanitation workers staged a bitter walkout over pay and job conditions in 2006. Allen took a tough stand in follow-up talks, refusing to join council members who agreed to talk with the workers’ union representatives.

His relations with the City Council have gone up and down. In 2010, the council paid a consultant $4,000 to figure out how Allen and council members could get along better. Council members gave him a “very positive” evaluation during his annual performance review in April 2011 – but they didn’t increase his pay.

“We’ve had some issues, and we’ve struggled the past couple of years,” McFarlane said. “And we felt like the city now is at that place where we’re getting ready to be a much bigger city.”

Allen had a mixed relationship with Raleigh developers.

He took a hard line against developer John Kane’s failed attempt in 2006 and 2007 to get the City Council to approve a tax-increment financing proposal to raise money for parking decks at Kane’s North Hills. Council member Bonner Gaylord, who voted to fire Allen, works for Kane.

Allen also took a firm stance when several developers missed city-imposed deadlines on projects following the financial crisis in 2008. He advocated against giving developers extensions, and the council ultimately terminated two of these deals involving city-owned property.

While some complained about his inflexibility, others praised Allen’s management style.

“He was tough but fair and predictable and consistent, which is very important,” said Roland Gammon, owner of White Oak Properties. White Oak is part of a group that acquired a city-owned site on Fayetteville Street where a two-tower project called Charter Square is to be built.

“It’s a tough job running a business like that, with a bunch of politicians looking over your shoulder,” Gammon said.

Randall Williams, a gynecologist who ran for mayor in the 2011 election that McFarlane won, says the candidates sometimes were asked to promise that they would get rid of Allen.

“It was a campaign issue, but it never made the newspaper,” Williams said. “Some developers really don’t like him.”

A ‘matter of vision’

Allen worked with former Mayor Charles Meeker on big initiatives to redevelop Fayetteville Street and the central business district.

“To me, he was an outstanding manager,” said Meeker, who was mayor from 2001 to 2011. “There have been so many changes – all the work that was done downtown, the new convention center, the sustainability effort – and some people didn’t like all that.”

He was hired under Meeker’s predecessor as mayor, Paul Coble, who is now a Wake County commissioner. Coble disagreed with some of the city’s initiatives under Meeker and Allen, but on Wednesday he had nothing but praise for Allen.

“Russell gave the city council and the mayor a lot of what they wanted without breaking the bank,” Coble said. “Look at the opening of Fayetteville Street and things like that – whether I agreed with them or not. He managed to get a lot of that done and stay within a certain budget, and we haven’t seen taxes go through the roof. I give him credit for that.”

McFarlane said the city will conduct a national search, and she hopes to hire a new city manger within six months. She wouldn’t say what skills Allen lacked, or what the city hoped to find in his successor.

“I think a lot of it is a matter of vision,” McFarlane said. “We are elected to represent the people, and the people tell us what they want to see done. We would like to have a city manager who, we feel, the priorities line up with ours.”

Council members John Odom (who served on the council that hired Allen in 2001), Russ Stephenson and Gaylord refused to say why they fired Allen. They cited “personnel matter” concerns. Council members Thomas Crowder and Randy Stagner could not be reached for comment.

Weeks gave Allen a big share of the credit for Raleigh’s downtown improvements and national recognition as a successful city.

“I felt no matter what the direction we’re moving in, I still felt we had the right man on the job. He worked with integrity, and his personality was above reproach,” Weeks said. “It took his know-how and his staff to make sure things were being done right in the city of Raleigh.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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