For more than four years, Hendersonville leaders have debated and discussed the merits of creating a city administrator position.
The idea of professional management was first raised by Mayor Scott Foster in the spring of 2016.
Foster, who didn’t seek re-election that year, pulled his proposal after several citizens said they wanted the day-to-day operations of City Hall to remain in the hands of an elected mayor rather than an administrator who answered to the entire board.
The idea was brought up again in 2018, when city leaders voted to appoint a committee to study the issue. Following the committee’s recommendation, the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 7 to 6 in May of 2019 to hire a city administrator who wouldn’t start the job until Mayor Jamie Clary’s term was up in 2020.
However, citing several missteps by Clary, board members voted 10 to 3 to hire an interim city administrator in November of 2019.
A year later, the interim city administrator was still running City Hall, yet Clary had been re-elected mayor by a large margin.
Although two new aldermen were elected Nov. 3 who supported Clary, there still didn’t seem to be enough votes on the board to eliminate the city administrator position. In fact, the new board narrowly voted Dec. 8 to keep the position in place through the end of March.
As the end of 2020 neared, city leaders seemed again at a stalemate with half of the board supporting the position and the other half wanting to eliminate it.
Many wondered if the divisiveness would continue until the next city election in 2022.
Ward 6 Alderman Eddie Roberson hoped it wouldn’t.
Roberson, who had first proposed that the city allow the mayor to hire a Chief of Staff in May of 2019, started to once again float the idea as a compromise. Roberson worked with Clary on crafting legislation to hire a Chief of Operations and first proposed the idea publicly on Jan. 12.
The idea secured a 12 to 1 vote and looks like it will pass a final reading on Jan. 26.
The 12 to 1 margin seemed surprising given the last four years - and even a month earlier.
What changed in just a month’s time - and does the shift signal a new day of cooperation and compromise? Several city leaders say they believe that it does.
Collins: Voters wanted unity
Rachel Collins of Ward 5 is the only board member elected in November who ran for office in support of the city administrator position.
Some have argued Clary won by such a large margin (with 63 percent) because so many opposed the city administrator position, others believe he was bolstered more by the state Republican party’s attack ads against his opponent, former Chamber of Commerce CEO Brenda Payne.
Collins, who was also targeted by the state party, said she feels the election was less about the city administrator position itself than it was about voters wanting unity.
“For me, the people I met while campaigning spoke more about division and the lack of civility on the board than they did about the city administrator,” she said. “I feel like we have to put this division behind us and we have to be able to compromise.”
Collins said she would still like to see professional management at City Hall, and feels like the Chief of Operations position is a good compromise.
“I think it’s a great start towards having professional management and I think the [mayor’s] job had been too much work for one person,” she said. “This has more input from the mayor as to what he wants that help to look like.”
Collins said she likes the idea of the Chief of Operations being an at-will employee, and the city not having the burden of a multi-year contract as it would with a city administrator. She says she’d also like to see the qualifications raised a little more (currently only a bachelor’s degree with five years of experience is required).
“We deserve a well-qualified person,” she added. “This is not an entry-level position.”
Collins’ fellow Ward 5 Alderman, Jonathan Hayes, had also been in favor of a city administrator.
Some see benefit of professional management
Hayes said the reason he voted for the position in the beginning was because a committee had unanimously recommended it to city leaders.
“I thought, ‘let’s respect these guys and follow their recommendation,’” he said. “Also, the way it was written in our city charter, a city administrator would answer to the board and not just one person.”
Hayes said he’s seen the benefits of professional management under interim city administrator Dave LeMarbre but is willing to hire someone who answers directly to the mayor if it means having a more unified board.
“I think most of the board had realized it’s what’s best for the city,” he said. “I’m ready to give [Clary] the benefit of the doubt and have that unity on the board. I believe he’ll hire a good person and we will support him or her.”
Ward 3 Alderman Russ Edwards had opposed the city administrator position in May of 2019, but seemed to have supported it as recently as Dec. 8.
“I was initially against the city administrator position, but once it passed, I wasn’t going to continue to fight it,” he said. “I wanted to get on board. It was the law at that point.”
Like Hayes, Edwards says he’s seen the benefits of professional management – particularly during budget discussions. He voted to keep LeMarbre in the position through March because he didn’t want a disruption in the chain of command, he added.
Edwards, who ran unopposed Nov. 3, said voters told him they didn’t want the city administrator position, and that they wanted board members to get along with each other.
“The city administrator is never going to get off the ground unless we have a mayor on board, and my constituents overwhelmingly picked him as mayor,” said Edwards. “I think [the Chief of Operations] is a good compromise.”
Ward 1 Alderman Mark Skidmore, who has consistently voted against the city administrator position, said he’s noticed a shift on the board within the last month.
“There’s not a lot of infighting,” he said. “It feels like there’s a spirit of cooperation now that was not there in the last four years. We need to maintain that and keep that momentum.”
Skidmore said the real test will come at budget time.
“The biggest thing the board does is vote on a budget each year – whether we need a tax increase and how we meet the needs of our police, fire and other departments. That’s going to be where the rubber really hits the road,” he said.
Under the new proposal, the mayor will craft the budget with the help of the Chief of Operations.
In the last budget cycle city leaders voted narrowly to decrease the mayor’s annual pay from around $100K to $43K.
When asked if he planned to ask for a pay increase, Clary said that was one of several changes he hoped to make.
“I think it was unfair that the mayor’s salary was cut,” he said. “And that, as well as some other things need to be rectified.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that BOMA narrowly voted to hire an interim city administrator in November of 2019. That vote was 10 to 3. We regret the error and have corrected it in this story.