Clifton resigns as Orange County manager

mschultz@newsobserver.comJune 29, 2013 

— The recession is over, and so is Frank Clifton’s tenure as county manager.

Or almost, anyway. The veteran administrator brought in as the economic downturn gripped Orange County announced his resignation Thursday.

He gave 90 days notice, per his contract, making his last day Sept. 29.

In a letter, Clifton acknowledged that he and some county officials and staff members have not always seen eye to eye.

“I recognize not all my recommendations and/or actions were viewed in a positive light by everyone,” he wrote. “That is not unexpected. Doing the public’s business is not without criticism.

“The intent always focused on the best interest of the whole county and its future.”

Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs called Clifton a strong manager.

“He has some impressive strengths, and we were able to take advantage of them,” Jacobs said.

Penny Rich, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member, agreed that Clifton helped get the county through “a really rough time,” but said his management style no longer fit.

“In my opinion, it felt like he was leading the commissioners instead of the commissioners leading themselves,” she said.

Clifton had served as county manager in Onslow and Cabarrus counties and city manager in Casselberry, Fla., and Bristol, Tenn.

When Orange County hired him in June 2009, after he’d served about eight months as interim manager, the recession was forcing the county to look more closely at how it raised and spent money in three major areas:

• The county’s tax base was growing at half the rate of a decade before.

• There had been a double-digit decline in sales-tax collections the previous year.

• The county had too much debt and too little in its fund balance, or savings account.

At a budget retreat, Clifton told the commissioners they could no longer afford to give people everything they wanted.

“Our problem has been we focus on what we’re going to spend on,” he said, “instead of what we have to spend.”

‘It was a trade’

Jacobs said Clifton put the county’s top needs first when many counties let priorities slip.

Under Clifton, the county cut jobs, consolidated departments and delayed projects. But the county just passed its fifth budget in a row without a tax increase – the past four under Clifton.

And it has maintained its commitment to the schools, dedicating half of the general fund revenues to the school systems.

“It was a trade,” Jacobs said. “We understood what we were getting from the start.”

Jacobs said, however, the election of three new commissioners last fall – Mark Dorosin, Renee Price and Rich – was the writing on the wall.

“There wasn’t as much meshing with the current board,” he said.

Price praised Clifton’s budget prowess – “He’s good with the numbers,” she said.

But she thinks the manager has led with a heavy hand.

Even before she joined the board, she disagreed with some of his recommendations, such as the decision to cut the Commission for Women, which the previous board went along with.

Price wants to bring the commission back, as part of the county economic development department to address workforce and other issues.

Elected leaders “are out in the community,” she said.

“People come up to us with issues and problems, and everything is not cut and dry.”

Rich said relations between the county and the towns have deteriorated under Clifton, although she said the municipalities share some of the blame.

“I feel like there was never relationship building, a team-building effort,” she said.

Particularly rankling, she said was the county’s decision to close the Orange County landfill, which was a decision she said came with only a year’s notice instead of two.

The decision has sent the towns scrambling to find new ways to handle their garbage and recycling.

“I think a number of things were done that really pissed the municipalities off,” Rich said. “Over and over again, I heard Chapel Hill being bashed; there was always that kind of wedge being placed.”

By geography, Orange County is largely rural, but the population centers are focused in the towns.

“We can’t just keep saying, ‘They have a lot of money down there; let them pay for it,’ ” she said. “That attitude that everybody in Chapel Hill is rich is still floating out there.

“We’re one county. We’re one people.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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