Triangle counties, Raleigh all have top administrator jobs to fill

mquillin@newsobserver.comAugust 7, 2013 

  • Help wanted

    Four Triangle municipalities are seeking top administrators:

    City of Raleigh: The City Council voted in April not to renew the contract of Russell Allen, who was city manager for 12 years. He left the job in June. Perry James is serving as interim manager.

    Wake County: David Cooke, who has been county manager for 13 years, will retire at the end of November. He said the timing is right now – he has hit the 30-year retirement eligibility mark in state government.

    Durham County: Mike Ruffin, who has been county manager for 14 years, will retire at the end of January. He and his wife plan to move to the Charlotte area to care for his aging in-laws.

    Orange County: Frank Clifton, who has been county manager for five years, will resign on Sept. 29. In his resignation letter, he said he wanted to pursue other challenges and opportunities, and he acknowledged that he and some county officials and staff members have not always seen eye to eye.

As job-hunters across the state look optimistically at improving unemployment reports, one small sector in particular has reason for hope.

An unusually high number of public administrators’ jobs – including four top positions in the Triangle – are open.

Orange, Durham and Wake county managers all have announced plans to retire, and Raleigh is replacing its city manager. Statewide, about 40 towns, cities and counties are looking for new top executives to make sure the policies of local elected leaders are carried out and state-required services are provided.

At any given time, there are usually 20 to 30 such openings, said Rob Shepherd, manager of member relations for the N.C. League of Municipalities and secretariat of the state’s City & County Manager’s Association. There are 552 municipalities and 100 counties in North Carolina, according to the League of Municipalities.

“This is one of the most important decisions they will make during their terms as city council members or mayors or county commissioners: the selection of their chief administrative officer,” Shepherd said.

The four Triangle-area jobs are likely to draw 100 or more applications each, many of them from out of state.

Wake County Manager David Cooke and Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin each announced plans to retire last month. Cooke will leave in November and Ruffin in January.

Orange County Manager Frank Clifton announced in June that he will retire in September after five years on the job.

Russell Allen was fired in April after 12 years as Raleigh’s city manager. He worked through the end of June.

Most likely, each of those entities will hire consultants and hold meetings to determine what qualities are most important in their next managers. The consultants will place ads for the jobs and cull the applicants based on the criteria each board has set, whittling the pool to a manageable number. Typically, such searches cost about $20,000 and take four to six months.

Raleigh is ahead

Raleigh is ahead of the three counties. It hired a search firm last month for its manager job, and the “help wanted” ad went out this month in national publications and websites.

Headhunter John Anzivino has sent letters to 85 potential candidates, and five have already submitted their applications.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a problem with finding good candidates,” Raleigh Councilman John Odom said Wednesday.

But given that the four manager-seeking governments are a similar size, they could see the applicant pool overlap.

That’s where Raleigh could have an advantage, Odom thinks.

“Our goal to get it done before Oct. 1 is a great goal, and we’ll already have ours done before the others start searching here,” he said.

Vaughn Upshaw, a lecturer in public administration and government at the UNC School of Government, said North Carolina in general and the Triangle in particular have reputations for being home to “good government,” where administrators are professionally trained and even local elected officials attend workshops.

Relatively stable jobs

City and county manager jobs in the state are seen as relatively stable, Upshaw said. Even though managers can be fired by the boards that hire them for any reason – or no reason – many stay in their jobs for years, despite turnover on those boards.

The current flurry of departures could put local governments in competition for applicants at the same time many of those trained in public administration are being drawn away from government work toward nonprofits, Upshaw said

In the 1970s, when many managers now eligible for retirement graduated from college, government work was widely viewed as noble public service, a way to solve common problems, according to Upshaw.

“By the ’80s, ‘Government is the enemy’ is the rhetoric we were hearing, and there is some of that now,” she said. “There is just a lot more skepticism as to whether government is the cause of our problems, or the one to solve it.”

Not for ‘faint of heart’

Applicants from within North Carolina may have some advantage over their out-of-state competitors, Upshaw said, because county governments are required by state law to provide a wide range of services and it helps to know the laws that govern those.

That complexity, including the disparate departments from mental health to social services to parks and recreation, makes it more likely that counties have deputy managers who can serve as interim managers during a search. They can even compete for the top jobs when they come open, Vaughn said.

Lee Worsley, deputy Durham county manager and president of the City & County Management Association, said the local managers’ current salaries range from about $160,000 to about $240,000 a year, typical for large metropolitan areas around the country, but far less than managers of large corporations with similar numbers of employees might earn.

“And it’s a hard job,” Worsley said. “It’s 24/7, 365, and you’re on the hook all the time” if something goes wrong, whether it’s a pothole that didn’t get filled or a natural disaster that flooded a whole neighborhood.

“It’s not a job for the faint of heart.”

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this report.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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