Emails reveal tension between Raleigh council and manager Russell Allen

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2013 

— During the months leading up to his firing April 17, Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen fielded frequent criticism and questions from council members who wanted to take a more hands-on role in governing the city – from protecting their reserved parking spots to meeting directly with department heads.

The desire of council members for a more active role led to tension evident in dozens of emails between the manager and several council members who voted to oust him. Under state law, Raleigh is governed by a CEO-style city manager who oversees all operations and an eight-member council that sets policy.

Both Allen and council members have remained tight-lipped about the firing. The emails released this month include just one direct reference to the possibility of firing Allen, a scathing review about how he handled council members’ reserved parking spots.

"Mr. Allen has handled this simple administrative issue poorly with his staff," Councilman Randall Stagner wrote to other council members on Jan. 25 about a parking concern. "In light of this and other recent staff-related issues, I would like to discuss his future with the City of Raleigh at your earliest convenience."

Allen’s firing came as a surprise to many people who deal with city government, including the two council members who opposed the move.

“Our role as city councilors is to set policy, and we’re not supposed to have a say in the day-to-day operations,” council member Mary-Ann Baldwin said in a recent interview. “That model has worked well for many years, and I don’t see any reason to change it.”

At the time of the firing, Allen and his city attorney had just wrapped up successful negotiations to lease the Dorothea Dix property for a destination park. The city’s finances have weathered the recession well, with no tax hikes expected this year. And the last high-profile controversy involving Allen was in 2010, when council members blasted his handling of the controversial plan for the Lightner Public Safety Center.

But the emails, released under a public records request, show mounting discontent with Allen as he handled demands ranging from reserved parking spaces to major long-term city projects. Council members were pushing for quick action from Allen and more input into city operations.

In recent months, some council members have been going directly to city employees with their questions, bypassing Allen altogether.

Parking problems

The actions blur the lines between the job of the council and manager. Under state statutes, the council is responsible for setting policy, while the manager handles personnel, supervises departments and deals with day-to-day operations. Allen often describes his job as the city’s CEO.

The heated exchange over parking began when Stagner complained that someone had taken two reserved council parking spaces in the deck next to City Hall. Stagner said in an interview Thursday he was concerned that after a late-night meeting, Baldwin had to walk by herself to her car on the opposite side of the garage.

Stagner wrote in an email that he wanted “additional city signage and enforcement.” Allen forwarded the request to the city’s parking administrator, Gordon Dash, who suggested issuing council parking passes if the problem continued. Stagner wrote back that he wanted the passes immediately but didn’t get a response for several days.

Stagner checked in with Allen again the following week, and the final response from Dash came two days later. Stagner sent his Jan. 25 email about Allen’s future a few hours later.

Stagner is a retired U.S. Army colonel and national security consultant. He is the newest member of the city council, elected in 2011 to fill Nancy McFarlane’s old North Raleigh seat when she ran for mayor. Stagner, a self-described “progressive independent,” had McFarlane’s support in 2011, and the two held fundraisers together.

Reached Thursday, Stagner wouldn’t comment on his criticism of Allen, saying it’s a confidential personnel matter. “I do highly respect him,” Stagner added, noting that the parking situation was resolved.

Allen says he makes a point of responding to calls and emails the day they’re received. The council “will always get a response,” he said.

Other conflicts

Stagner wasn’t the only council member who has been critical of Allen’s leadership in recent months. In March, council member Russ Stephenson wanted elected leaders to be more involved with plans for a new transit station in downtown’s Warehouse District. He sent emails to Allen complaining that city staff “does not intend to solicit full council direction.”

Later, Stephenson appeared at a committee meeting to ask that the council review each stage of the planning process.

Council members also clashed with Allen last summer when they asked him to consider hiring more assistants in the council’s office. Three assistants work there, fielding questions, scheduling appointments and answering emails.

Allen discouraged the move, pointing out that most city departments have been cutting jobs. Nearly all the council members who voted for Allen’s ouster said the staffing merited a closer look.

In the end, Allen hired a consultant to assess the need, reorganized the council office without making new hires, and cleared up lines of communication.

“I have not heard any concerns from council members since we’ve had that reorganization,” Allen said last week.

But in a recent interview, McFarlane said she still wants the assistants to provide more updates from the legislature and other briefings to the council. “Somebody should be giving us this information all the time,” she said.

The conflicts echo the fiery debates of 2010, when the council had a bitter disagreement on the Lightner Public Safety Center. Council members were deadlocked over plans for a 17-story, $205 million law enforcement tower downtown and eventually scrapped the project.

Four of the six council members who voted to ax Allen also voted to kill the Lightner Center, and several blasted Allen for encouraging work on the project without signed agreements.

“We should not be doing this ever again,” council member Thomas Crowder told Allen at the time.

Allen’s response at the same meeting: “I do not consider it unprofessional behavior. ... I was acting in good faith on what I thought was the clear direction of the council.”

A ‘hands-on’ council

Also in 2010, several council members said they’d like to take a more “hands-on style” in governing the city, following those contentious months in which their relationship with Allen was described as “dysfunctional.”

That hands-on approach has continued, with individual council members having frequent contact with city staffers who report to Allen. In February, Stagner, Stephenson and council member John Odom set up a lunch meeting to discuss a major transit project with the head of Capital Area Transit. Emails show Allen, whom the three councilmen later voted to fire, was not invited.

Stagner has been particularly hands-on in his dealings with city employees.

He has recently been working with N.C. State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences on a possible partnership to clean up polluted Pigeon House Branch, a project that hasn’t yet gone before the entire council.

In an email, he told the stormwater utility manager he wants a particular employee, engineer Mark Senior, assigned to work on the effort. “This should be a very low impact activity, but I need a smart, go-to city staffer,” Stagner wrote.

Baldwin, who voted against Allen’s firing, says the council’s level of involvement is changing.

“I think there was a philosophical difference among council members about the city council’s role and the city manager’s roles,” she said. Baldwin said she and Eugene Weeks, who also wanted to keep Allen, weren’t told in advance there would be a move to fire the manager.

‘It’s nothing personal’

It’s unclear whether Allen knew his job was in jeopardy. But as his annual performance review approached in March, he sent a memo to the council with a three-page bulleted list of the year’s accomplishments.

He also asked for a private “feedback” meeting with McFarlane before the evaluation.

“I enjoy the city work so much because we produce substantive and documentable results for the citizens of our community,” Allen wrote in the memo. “Personally, I try to set an example of hard work, accessibility, responsiveness, stewardship, partnering and leadership.”

Among the projects on Allen’s “organizational accomplishments” list were the Dorothea Dix lease, improvements to multiple community centers, a comprehensive pedestrian plan and the conversion of police cars to propane fuel.

Council members have said they’re happy with what Allen has brought to Raleigh in the past 12 years. Stagner says he’s even planning to meet with Allen to get his advice on selecting a new manager.

“I do not want in any way to disparage anything Russell’s done,” McFarlane said. “We felt like a new manager, with maybe some different skills and a new set of eyes would be a good thing. It’s nothing personal.”

Allen will continue working through this spring’s budget planning process. His last day will be June 30; an interim manager could be named as soon as this week.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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