New Durham County Manager Wendell Davis says he will push the county to invest in its “human capital.”
Davis was sworn in during an emotional 30-minute ceremony during the Board of County Commissioners regular meeting Monday afternoon. Well-wishers, including members of Davis’ extended family from his hometown in Halifax County, filled the board’s chambers.
Davis, who served as deputy county manager from 1999 to 2011, noted that over the last few years, the county has done an admirable job of addressing the needs of its physical plant, opening a new courthouse and a new Health and Human Services Building last year.
But the county has much work to do on issues of poverty and crime, said Davis, who left county government in 2011 to become N.C. Central University’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.
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There will be many challenges, Davis said, but if these challenges can be met, “then we create opportunity, opportunities for people to change their lives.”
Davis commended board Chairman Michael Page and Durham Mayor Bill Bell for pledging to fight poverty in their state of the county and state of the city addresses earlier this year. He pledged to bring in voices from all over the county to tackle the problem.
“I will spend my days and nights looking for every opportunity to collaborate, to work with people,” he said.
A sharecropper’s son, Davis spoke of his upbringing and the importance of education and community.
Despite his family’s humble origins, Davis said, he counts among his siblings a doctor, a lawyer and an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.
“It was nothing more than an opportunity to get an education that afforded that achievement,” he said.
All the families within a 30-mile radius knew each other where he grew up, Davis said, meaning that any bad behavior would get back to the parents. Everybody cared about each other’s well-being and pushed children to succeed.
In many Durham neighborhoods now, he said, people don’t know their neighbors three doors down.
Davis succeeds Mike Ruffin, who retired Jan. 31 after 13 years at the helm.
The county commissioners selected Davis in a 4-1 vote after many months of closed-door meetings.
Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, the dissenting vote, was out Monday with an excused absence.
Commissioner Fred Foster, who lost his position as chairman of the board to Page in a 4-1 vote earlier this year, said that in retrospect he was happy about the change because the divided board might not have been able to hire Davis without Page’s more seasoned leadership.
“He had my unwavering support when this process began, he has my unwavering support now, and he will have my unwavering support in the future,” Foster said of Davis.
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said she thought Davis “struck all the right notes” in his remarks.
“It’s a real pleasure to welcome Wendell back,” Reckhow said.
Commissioner Brenda Howerton acknowledged Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley for his his leadership as interim county manager as the search for a permanent replacement dragged on.
The commissioners then led the packed house in a standing ovation for Worsley.