Our New City Manager
Debra Campbell, previously Charlotte’s Assistant City Manager, will become Asheville’s new city manager effective December 3rd. After a nation-wide search with many talented candidates, Debra was Council’s unanimous first choice. This post explains why I supported her.
Let me start with Debra’s background. She has over 30 years of experience in local government. Before becoming Assistant City Manager in Charlotte, Debra spent 26 years in Charlotte’s planning department, eventually becoming its head in 2004 until she became an Assistant City Manager in 2014. She has deep experience with similar “growth” issues Asheville faces (Charlotte is among the fastest growing cities in the United States) but through her work as an Assistant City Manager, she also gained experience in other areas of managing a city as well. In 2007, Governing Magazine named her a public official of the year. Debra’s understated yet very strong presence and her thoughtful, practical answers to our questions convinced me to support her.
I wanted a manager who not only had the technical skills to manage a city, but also the personality to lead in Asheville. Our city is a unique place with great potential that has not yet been realized and a demanding and engaged electorate. Becoming a public official (elected or appointed) here is not for the faint-hearted and, in my view, requires a strong backbone and some thick skin. Debra has both.
As planning director in Charlotte, Debra recounted to us the pressures that elected officials, developers and members of the public placed on her, yet she looked at projects objectively and stood her ground when she thought she was right. It may seem odd for an elected official to select a manager who is willing to push back against things that I potentially may want, but I think we need a manager who will provide us with independent recommendations and not bow to political pressure or take positions because they think it’s what we want to hear.
As a council member, my role is to make policy decisions and the manager’s role is to manage staff and to run the city. I need to know that the information that I’m receiving from staff is truly their independent, objective analysis and that they feel comfortable making potentially difficult recommendations. For any number of reasons, I may decide to deviate from their recommendations, but I need to have confidence that I’m getting good information even on complicated and politically sensitive matters. That only happens when a City manager backs up their staff and I believe Debra will. (City staff also interviewed the manager candidates and had very positive feedback about Debra).
In her interview, Debra struck me as a problem solver who wants to get to the heart of the issue so that we can fix what’s wrong. She listens, takes in the facts, and then makes her decision in a methodical and logical way. There is very little pretense with Debra and I came out of the interview trusting her judgement and her integrity. One of the most important parts of any interview is the opportunity for the candidate to ask questions and Debra’s question showed that she understood where Asheville is right now. She asked (and I’m paraphrasing), “Why do people always say that it’s so difficult to govern in Asheville?” Perhaps a more blunt way of putting that question (and let me be clear this is my interpretation, not Debra’s) is that with all the positive attributes that Asheville has, why can’t everyone work together and move forward with addressing the problems you have?
Council had intended to bring back our manager finalists for a public meet and greet. However, we had unanimous agreement in support of Debra and Greenville, SC had also named her a finalist in their city manager search. Anyone who has experience hiring in the private sector or government knows that talented people have many options and we did not want to lose Debra to Greenville so we decided to move quickly. I understand the criticism for not doing the public meet and greet, but I stand by that decision. Just yesterday, Greenville announced that it declined to hire either of their remaining two finalists and put their search on hold. I think we made the right call.
In addition to meeting very talented and interesting people, the interview process allowed Council members to discuss issues through the questions we asked the candidates. The topic of Asheville’s “growth” came up repeatedly. “Growth” manifests itself in different ways. One can focus on the infrastructure aspects such as traffic, roads, sidewalks and housing. Growth impacts the natural environment around us. It also has economic and social implications such as rising housing costs and gentrification of neighborhoods. Finally, though intangible, growth also means change and a feeling that the Asheville that some once knew is different today (in some ways better and in some ways worse). I can’t think of a better person than Debra Campbell to be at the helm of our city as we tackle these issues.