Wake County manager Jim Hartmann steps down

Wake County

Jim Hartmann, the Wake County manager who has been criticized for his handling of an investigation into missing money from a county office, is stepping down.

Hartmann announced Thursday that he will resign Oct. 27. He said his resignation has nothing to do with the probe of the Register of Deeds office, where $895,000 in cash went missing in recent years.

“That is simply not the case and not a factor in my decision,” Hartmann wrote in a letter to county commissioners. “I have solid integrity and thick skin.”

Hartmann, 64, said it became clear to him at his daughter’s wedding last weekend that “now is the right time for me to transition my career.”

Hartmann alerted District Attorney Lorrin Freeman about missing money in the deeds office in February, but some county commissioners recently criticized him for not moving more quickly to strengthen cash-handling policies.

Commissioners took a softer tone Thursday, praising Hartmann for deftly transitioning county operations through periods of growth and change. A Republican-controlled board hired Hartmann in 2014, and Democrats gained control months later.

Hartmann helped commissioners adopt a voter-approved transit plan that will add buses and train service throughout the region in the coming years. He also worked to boost funding for public schools and health care programs.

He’s known for his blunt-but-measured speaking style and for praising staff members publicly.

Hartmann “led the county’s efforts to strengthen our economy, help those in need, manage growth, and revolutionize our public transportation system,” Commissioner Matt Calabria said. “Jim is leaving behind a culture of innovation and collaboration that will enable us to better tackle our challenges for years to come.”

Commissioner John Burns described Hartmann as an “excellent” county manager who led Wake’s efforts to improve health care.

“The focus of county departments and various agencies was very much Jim Hartmann’s doing,” Burns said. “That doesn’t minimize the roles played by others. He has been up front and behind the scenes in ways others don’t realize.”

There have been challenges this year.

In the spring, Hartmann faced criticism for his proposed budget that did not not fully fund the request from Wake County schools. Commissioners gave schools an additional $5 million, but school board members and education advocates have derided county leaders.

In early February, Hartmann launched an audit of the Register of Deeds office after learning of missing money. On March 31, Laura Riddick resigned from her position as register on the same day the district attorney announced an investigation.

Earlier this month, three county commissioners openly criticized Hartmann for his communication style and hesitation to implement broad changes to the county’s cash-handling policies. Hartmann said that other departments are running smoothly and that he wanted to wait for the results of the Register of Deeds audit before making changes.

Commissioner Greg Ford said he repeatedly asked Hartmann to explain the loss of cash and quickly impose a fresh system of checks and balances – only to be disappointed by Hartmann’s response.

“Several commissioners – myself included – have not been satisfied with County management’s response to our repeated requests for information and deliverables within a reasonable timeframe (and) certainly not with the sense of urgency I believe this matter warrants,” Ford said in a statement. “Current internal controls for handling cash are not tight, or consistent, and this is accentuated by the fact that County management has taken half a year to report on its response since the whistle was first blown in the Register of Deeds Office last winter.”

Commissioners Erv Portman and Jessica Holmes also complained about a lack of progress and transparency. But on Thursday, Portman praised the county manager and said their disagreement shouldn’t stain Hartmann’s record.

“While I was frustrated that it took as long as it did for us to address the cash exposure, Mr. Hartmann has done a good job for the county,” Portman said. “Just because it would take longer than I’d want on one task doesn’t take away what he’s done in other areas.”

Holmes said she wanted “the public to be reassured that we are all committed to working together to ensure a smooth transition.”

The Register of Deeds is an elected office, so it largely operates independently of county government. It handles cash paid by customers who request records such as marriage, birth and death certificates.

Charles Gilliam, the new register, has said the county would have likely detected the missing money sooner if its finance officer had audited the deeds office more frequently, as allowed by state law.

Wake is working to install an electronic system to accept debit and credit cards, and Hartmann has said the county plans to provide training for tellers in August and September.

Family in Florida

Hartmann’s salary in 2015 was $230,707. He spent eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard and 34 years in local governments across the country.

In his letter to commissioners, Hartmann wrote that he made his decision while at his daughter’s wedding in Omaha, Nebraska.

“After I walked her down the aisle and celebrated this monumental milestone with my family, it’s clear that now is the right time for me to transition my career.”

Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said Hartmann lives alone in a local apartment and periodically flies to Florida to be with his wife and family.

“I’m 64 as well, and it’s an age where you realize you only have so many days left on this planet,” Hutchinson said.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht