By the time Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane walked across McDowell Street this week to talk with reporters and editors of The News & Observer, she’d had enough questions to last her a lifetime about the sudden firing of Russell Allen, the city manager. Allen in 12 years had developed a good reputation as a manager who made smart hiring decisions, kept an eye on all departments and was loyal to staff.
Along the way, he generally managed to wrangle a sometimes contentious city council, which like most such publicly elected panels has some internal personality conflicts and rivalries. But despite some occasional grumbling that Allen didn’t “communicate” as well as he might have with council members, few expected him to be dismissed. In discussing, cautiously, what happened, the mayor cited communications issues and simply the need for change.
“We have a lot of people moving here,” she said. “We face a lot of challenges. We felt a new manager ... that a different set of eyes might help. We thought it was time. But I have not said we want a ‘new direction.’ We like the direction. People are happy with where the city is going.”
Citing the need to be judicious in her comments because of personnel rules, the bottom line for McFarlane seemed to be that Allen has been a good manager, but that the city’s growth may demand skills from someone with greater knowledge about larger cities. (Allen was manager in Rock Hill, S.C., before coming to Raleigh.)
But she gave Allen deserved credit for the job he’d done, including negotiations on the Dorothea Dix property with regard to a long-term lease that would let the city develop a showcase park. That appears to be in jeopardy because Republicans in the General Assembly are itching to take a partisan swipe at former Gov. Beverly Perdue, who did the deal.
McFarlane said of the Dix deal: “We have a lease and a contract, and I think they should honor it.”
On other issues, the mayor was subdued but forthcoming:
She said she was “frustrated over the lack of talk about transit,” meaning light rail and alternatives that would be possible with a transit tax that Wake commissioners are holding up.
She believes the city may need to hire its own lobbyist to monitor what’s doing on Jones Street in a year when Republicans are cobbling together some strange legislation and there seems to be an anti-city mentality, at least on the part of some.
She says there will be more “single-occupancy households” in the city in the future and that there need to be some imaginative developments that would follow an urban model but still have a variety of types of housing.
She would like to see more help generated in the area of economic development but beyond recruiting new businesses. “We need to do more,” she said, “for companies that are already here.” (The mayor’s own pharmaceutical-related company is an entrepreneurial venture and highly successful.)
McFarlane, elected in 2011, followed the 10-year tenure of Charles Meeker, a forward-thinking if soft-spoken leader. McFarlane still is more low-key and would be helped if she pushed herself to the forefront more. But overall, she has been an effective mayor where it counts, including bringing many diverse groups and individuals together to work for the common good.