New city manager will face challenges, opportunities for growth

New City Manager Ron Carlee will pick up on retired Manager Curt Walton's leadership on LGBT inclusion, capital investment

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: March 1, 2013 in News

[Ed. Note -- A version of this story appears in our March 1-14 print edition. An updated version appears below. Charlotte City Council announced Ron Carlee as their pick for city manager after our print edition was sent to press. An in-depth look at Carlee, his experiences in Arlington, Va., and expectations for his work in Charlotte will be published in our March 15 print edition.]

Ron Carlee, seen with Mayor Anthony Foxx, won the City Council’s backing as new Charlotte city manager on Feb. 25. Photo Credit: Mark Hames/Charlotte Observer.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A forthcoming transition in city leadership could change the way LGBT people and a host of other progressive issues are represented in the city. On Feb. 25, City Council introduced Ron Carlee as the city’s 11th city manager, the first outside candidate to hold the post in 30 years. Carlee, who most recently worked for the International City/County Management Association, is a former Arlington, Va., county manager.

“You guys are really fortunate. Ron is fabulous. He’s an outstanding public servant,” said Arlington County, Va., Vice Chair Jay Fisette, who in 1997 became the first openly LGBT person elected to any office in Virginia. “I read the position description that was put out by the city, what they were looking for, and it’s like it was tailored to him. If it’s true what they’re looking for and what they want to create in Charlotte and build on whatever they have, he’s just a perfect candidate for you guys.”

Fisette had served as the county board’s chair when Carlee was hired there in 2001. He said Carlee was a committed leader affirming of LGBT people and outspoken on a variety of progressive issues, including the rights of immigrants.

“It sounds like your council is at a place where they are really ready to keep building on the progress they’ve been making,” Fisette said.

Carlee, who begins his tenure on April 1, will have plenty of continued progress to herald and uphill challenges to face in Charlotte as he steps up to the plate to replace Curt Walton, who served as city manager from 2007 until his retirement in December.

Walton was instrumental in the addition of LGBT employee protections and domestic partner benefits. He and his staff were also at the forefront of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. The plan, which would invest significant funding in infrastructure and other needs, is still being debated by the city as it also considers tax increases to support upgrades to the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium and fights off an effort by state lawmakers to turn control of the Charlotte-Douglas Airport from the city to an independent regional authority.

Walton, who worked for the city in various positions since 1986, sat down with qnotes during his last days in the city manager’s office shortly before his retirement in December. In his time working for the city, Walton has seen Charlotte’s business community, culture and diversity grow and change in amazing ways.

Curt Walton

“When I came here in 1986, Charlotte was so corporate,” he said. “There were good sides to that and bad sides to that. We had major presence of major corporations and we had a high income base and high property base. On the downside, there wasn’t a lot of diversity to that, particularly back then.”

Center City, Walton said, has changed drastically.

“When I came in 1986, at 5:01 [p.m.], it was literally dead,” Walton said of Uptown. “You couldn’t find anyone on the sidewalks. I think the [Time Warner Cable Arena] was the catalyst. Now, downtown is transformed. There’s people there probably 20 hours a day and out in force.”

The city’s population changed, too, jumping from nearly 396,000 in 1990 to more than 540,000 in 2000. The latest 2011 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau places the city at 751,087.

As the city grew, so did its major corporations.

“Particularly in the 1980s and through the 1990s, civic engagement from the business community was much greater than it is now,” Walton said, citing the role of Bank of America’s Hugh McColl and First Union’s Ed Crutchfield.

But, those same corporate icons have changed. Bank of America, the former N.C. National Bank, is now headed by a CEO lacking a strong, personal connection to Charlotte. The former First Union and Wachovia is now owned by the San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

“Because of the globalization of banking and energy, they are engaged…but it’s not really Charlotte-centric,” Walton said. ”That has changed how the civic agenda is developed and implemented and it puts more responsibility on elected officials, city council persons and their staffs. Instead of McColl looking out his window and saying something or another needs to go on that surface lot, that’s not what’s happening anymore. We have to figure it out ourselves.”

The changed business climate is just one of many new realities a new city manager will have to face. Whether it will be Carlee or one of the other two finalists — current Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble or current Assistant City Manager Ruffin Hall — the new city manager will have to build on Walton’s work on a capital improvement program and continued efforts toward inclusion.

Folks like the mayor or representatives on the city council usually get the most public attention for their work in the city. But, behind the scenes, the city manager works to keep city operations running smoothly in an organization that employs nearly 7,000 people, from sanitation workers and engineers to police and fire.

“My clearest responsibility is managing the workforce,” Walton said. “We’ve got nearly 7,000 employees. Ultimately, it’s what is best for the workforce.”

Walton was essential in moving local LGBT equality initiatives forward. In 2010, he added sexual orientation to his human resources department’s non-discrimination policy. In 2012, he added domestic partner benefits to his budget. And, right as he was set to leave his post, Walton added employment protections for transgender city workers.

Walton said his efforts to increase inclusive employment protections and benefits were helped by the support of police and fire. He also had the support of the mayor and council, though the elected body has not voted on a single LGBT-inclusive policy or ordinance since it defeated an inclusive public accommodations proposal in 1992.

“Those are city manager decisions, but implicitly the mayor and council agree, because I can do it because I had the authority,” he said. “Even though they didn’t raise their hands for it, they support it or they would have taken that authority away from me.”

Culturally and politically, the city has changed, Walton said. When domestic partner benefits were first discussed in 2005, he said city leadership received negative feedback from employees.

“But the world has changed a lot since 2005,” he said. “I don’t think I got any pushback, nothing negative on any of the issues, adding sexual orientation, gender identity or domestic partner benefits.”

New City Manager Ron Carlee will have to pick up where Walton left off. Several important LGBT inclusion initiatives are still left on the table, like amendments to the city’s Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance and better inclusion on city boards and commissions.

Walton’s replacement will also have to lead on other progressive, forward-looking issues championed by Walton, like the Capital Improvement Plan. Proposed by last year, the plan seeks to invest much-needed infrastructure and development funding in areas of the city often neglected and in need of economic development.

The plan was considered last summer, but ultimately voted down in a surprise move by City Council — a move that frustrated Walton. He said his staff strove to take risks and innovate at the city leaders’ instructions.

“We went through four months of very active discussion of the Capital Plan and there was never any oppositions expressed or never really any concern expressed until the night of adoption,” Walton said. “That was frustrating because we had given so many opportunities to raise concerns and raise questions and there weren’t any.”

Walton said the Capital Improvement Plan is desperately needed and foresees that it will be passed. The new city manager, however, will have to keep elected officials’ eyes on the ball. Taking too long to enact the plan, discussion of which was again postponed in December, will hurt the city’s growth, Walton said.

“I think it could be as long as 18 months. That’s the outside window of what I think is acceptable,” he said. “As long as they do something by June of 2014, they are still in the window, but they are sitting on the ledge at that point. We have to have a capital program to voters in 2013 or 2014 or I do think we are at risk.”

In other progressive arenas, Walton is confident the city will continue to grow and change.

“Charlotte has its corporate DNA down good, but Charlotte needs to deliberately be focusing on diversifying,” Walton said, pointing to the positive effects on community growth that comes from inclusion. “I think for us, one of our core missions is to be a platform for economic development. We’ve kind of grown out of the phase of the ‘Creative Class,’ Richard Florida’s work that was really popular. I don’t hear that discussed all that much anymore, but I think the principle still applies.”

The question, and resulting answer, for the city and its new city manager is simple, Walton said: “I think [progress and inclusion] will continue. I don’t think we have any choice. If the city is going to mirror community, it will have to mirror all parts of the community. I think we will do that.” : :

Walton: Change slow, but times changed

Online Exclusive: Walton dishes on history of LGBT inclusion

During his tenure as city manager, Curt Walton was among the most LGBT-friendly city officials, on or off the Council. Under his authority as city manager, Walton instituted non-discrimination protections for LGBT city workers and was a leading proponent of adding health and other benefits for same-sex partners and families of LGBT city workers.

The changes Walton implemented had been long in the works, with often controversial and tumultuous conversations dating back to to 2005 under then-City Manager Pam Syfert.

“One thing that happened from 2005, when we tried talking about domestic partner benefits, Pam [Syfert] was still manager,” Walton said. “She convened a meeting with LGBT employees and we expected maybe 10 people to come and as I remember there had to be at least 50.”

The employees’ concerns were heard then, but, ultimately, no action was ever taken. Various issues kept LGBT progress at bay.

“I think legal opinions have been an issue,” Walton said, referring to past opinions issued by former City Attorney Mac McCarley. “I think it wasn’t clear whether we had the authority or not. Neither the staff nor Council felt comfortable pushing those boundaries.”

McCarley’s hostile legal opinions had kept important initiatives off the table for years. In January 2009, Walton was still citing McCarley’s opinions when discussing non-discrimination and benefits measures at a forum with the Charlotte Business Guild and other LGBT community members.

“Cities and counties have such few powers in North Carolina,” Walton said during the 2009 event. “To me [the state is the] safest place to start. The legal restraints the city attorney has placed around these issues — really what the State of North Carolina has placed around these issues — are what I have to operate around.”

At the time, some community members saw the legal posturing as a “cop out.”

“I think that if the politicians cared to do it, they could do it,” remarked one community member.

Eventually, that’s what happened as the attitude of city staff and Council members transformed over the next few years. Despite doubts about state law and the city charter, Walton said he moved forward with the support of Council.

“Ultimately, I decided there wasn’t a great risk there,” he said. “For the non-discrimination [policy], when I added sexual orientation, that’s basically what I decided; it was the right thing to do and nothing specifically said we couldn’t do it. Same thing for gender expression.”

Employees, too, became more outspoken. As City Council debated the new budget in the summer of 2012, Walton cited city workers for their willingness to address the domestic partner benefits issue publicly.

“That was the first time employees had come to Council to speak about that and it did make a difference,” Walton said.

The debate over the Capital Improvement Plan, unwittingly, also benefited the benefits expansion.

“I will say that the capital budget sort of provided cover for everything else,” Walton said with a laugh. “[Council members] forgot about everything else. It wasn’t until the very last vote in June that somebody remembered that domestic partner benefits were in there. They all looked at him when he raised the issue and said, ‘You’ve got be kidding, we’re not going to talk about this now.’”

The Council’s budget planning meeting vote on the line item passed 10-1, Walton said.

Walton knows there’s still more progress to be made, and not just on LGBT issues. But, the city has changed, however slowly, and will continue to do so, he said.

“The employee population has gotten much more supportive of these things,” he said. “I think the Council has gotten more supportive. Society has come a long way in those seven years.”