County Manager Quits

Laura Blackmon gave notice to the BoCC.  Her last day is 30 June.



Dear Employees, By now you have probably heard I gave notice to the BOCC on Friday that my husband and I have decided to leave the area and move to Tennessee. My last day on the job will be June 30, 2009. I know the timing of this announcement is not good, but my employment agreement with the county requires I give 90 day notice and I was running out of time. By the end of June I will have been here over 2 ½ years. This is not as long as I had originally thought I would stay, but life isn't always as we plan it. I know you understand how difficult a year this will be for the budget. The BOCC has committed itself to a revenue neutral tax rate which means the tax rate will generate the same amount of revenue from property taxes as last year. A lot of residents are upset about the revaluation of their property, but the neutral tax rate should keep their taxes in check unless their property has increased in value above the average of all properties in the county. Revaluation and neutral tax rate, however, are not the problem in and of themselves. The real problem for the coming year is most of our other revenue sources are declining, we have new facilities opening which means an increase in utilities and general operating costs, we have an increase in demands for services, especially in the human resources departments and the state is beginning to withhold revenue from us because of its budget shortfalls. Things are not looking good for the county or the two school systems, which have already been told they too will see a decrease in funds next year. The Budget Office has estimated the shortfall to be about $8 million, which will be difficult to absorb without cutting services or staff. The BOCC has emphasized its desire NOT to reduce staff but to seek other ways of cutting expenditures. Those of you who are fully funded from outside sources such as grants, state and/or federal monies are more vulnerable than other employees because it will be hard to absorb the cost of your salary and benefits should those funding sources disappear. Nevertheless the Commissioners and Management are adamant about keeping everyone employed, so we will do our best to make sure no one loses their job. Having said all that, it is crucial everyone understand and support the difficult decisions being made over the next few months. You have probably already heard there will be no cost of living or merit increases for employees next year. We are also expecting about an 8% increase in the cost of medical benefits next calendar year. These costs can be contained if we work hard to stay healthy and reduce our claims for insurance. Unfortunately that is easier said than done. The department directors have submitted their budgets with a 10% reduction in operating line items, overtime and temporary employee expenditure requests. I am hoping this 10% cut will be enough given the shortfall we are expecting in revenues. However, some departments are actually seeing an increase in the cost of doing business (Public Works, IT, Parks and Recreation for example) or an increase in service demands (such as Health, DSS, and Emergency Services). In reality, once the final budget is approved some departments will see more cut from their budgets than other departments. I don't see how this can be avoided. Tough decisions will have to be made about whether or not we open new parks or county buildings that are now almost complete, whether we cut operating hours for libraries, the animal shelter, senior centers and other county facilities, or whether we limit the amount of services we provide for those residents in our community most in need of assistance. I think the bottom line will be for us to reduce, eliminate, or delay those services that are important but not as critical as our core services, which are the services the county provides because it is legally required by statute or because government is the best agency to do so. Such decisions will not be easy and we must do all we can to suggest, inform, recommend and ultimately support the Board of Commissioners who will be tasked with that responsibility. In closing let me just say thank you for all you do for the residents of Orange County. As public servants we have a unique responsibility to the community and I know you will continue to do the very best job you can despite the difficulties ahead.

This announcement is certainly going to make the County Commissioners' jobs much more difficult moving forward.  But it is also going to have a trickle down effect because anything that might hinder the BOCC's ability to draft and execute an effective budget plan is going to have an effect on everyone living in this County.  I'm not sure how easy it will be to recruit to this position given everything that is happening.  Is there any good news anywhere out there? (other than Jake's wedding).

I see it as good news. From what little I have seen of Ms. Blackmon she is cold, unfriendly, and a road block to information. When commissioners ask the same questions they asked 2 months earlier and have yet to receive answers from the staff including the manager. How are we as citzens expect our elected leaders to make an inform decision?

Regardless of what one thinks of Ms. Blackmon's performance or the BoCC's, it is problematic to have a vacancy there at this moment.

Let's save the cost of a search and just randomly pick one of the many citizens who are convinced that they could do the job better than the professionals we hire.  They can be warm and friendly and freely dispense information as requested and might even accept less than we would have to pay a professional.From the outside looking in, some things just aren't what they seem to be, and sometimes there are reasons for the things we don't understand.  Not saying what's right or wrong, just that this stuff is not always as simple as we might want it to be.You see this as good news, I see it as a significant loss for Orange County on several levels.

Why don't you tell us Mr. Black where our "significant loss" is, maybe we can agree on something? You like to be crital of other viewpoints but offer very little if any to support your own opinions.The hand writing was on the wall when the BoCC had a meeting with the manager back in late Dec. I had a commissioner apologize to me for there selection of Ms. Blackmon. We went from an openness of Mr. Link to where employees were fearful of speaking up when asked a question. You don't have to be on the inside to see it, just open your eyes and ears.

you just don't like it.  Mr. Link was manager for 18 years.  You expect nothing to be different when a new manager who is new to OC comes in? Lack of stability at this time hurts us all.  Remember the "abrupt" comment about the CHHS principal? Another significant loss.If a commissioner apologized to you "for there (sic) selection of Ms. Blackmon, then that says a lot about the lack of professionalism of that commissioner.  Maybe that's a good reason for a manager to leave. Managers work for the commissioners, not having their confidence might make the job even more difficult, agree?

Just as I was contemplating whether to appeal my revaluation, I came across this, from Will Rogers, about the definition of "budget":  "A mythical beanbag - Congress votes mythical beans into it, and then tries to reach in and pull real beans out of it."What we seem to have in the county is a bunch of different bags and different beans - all claimed to be mythical on our taxes but expected to be real when we have to sell.  I'm also hearing the voice of William Bendix saying something about "what revoltin' development this is" - which under the circumstances has multiple meanings, too. 

This presents a very real opportunity to bring someone in who has the creativity and the background to focus on what will make us strong enough to survive the difficult times ahead. Any crisis presents great opportunity and we can now see that local self-reliance will be central to the overall health of Orange County. On-the-ground sustainable economic initatives such as expanding our local food economy, focusing on energy-efficiency and renewable energy, creative approaches to affordable housing, and exploring the economic opportunities of waste reduction and recycling - just to name a few. Pie-in-the-sky big traditional planner solutions like an airport or landing a big corporate presence have never been in line with the collective vision of Orange County and now they are no longer remotely in line with reality.

Mark,Those are good suggestions but I fear that it might be awhile before we can get a new Manager on board.  Given the current economic situation I wouldn't be surprised if we experience the (to paraphrase a Groucho Marx line) "I wouldn't join a County that would have me" syndrome.  i.e., why would a very good manager jump into this hornets nest until they had a better idea of where the County is headed?  Even the best managers who like a challenge are probably reluctant to move knowing that the current support levels from state and federal sources might still have a long way to drop. And I know that developing self reliance can go a long way to minimize those outside needs but that takes time and it requires developing a new mindset amongst both the governors and the governees.

Ms. Blackmon's announcement to county staff indicates little willingness to serve through June 30.  "Things are not looking good..."  Has to resign now because she's required to give 90 days' notice.  Wow. 

Perhaps Mark M. has it right -- this is an opportunity to recruit a manager who brings a copacetic vision to Orange County.  Whoever composes the perfect job description might as well apply.  It would be great to find someone who knows the territory; this is asking a lot, and as George says it could take quite a while to find the right person.  Worth waiting for, yes -- but we need a manager now!  At least Orange County, NC, still has plenty of appeal. 

I think it's time to pick someone who knows the county well from living here. We always get these interchangeable personnel from Planning Central. Let's pick someone who knows the land, the culture, the people, and the history. The bottomless wells of conventional wisdom will, of course, tell us that knowing the dry details of zoning and conventional planning is of paramount importance. But those things can be learned much easier than the unique aspects of our county. Support staff would be all we'd need for this. Let's allow a vision for what the county needs to take precedence over "what is possible" as dictated by those trained at Planning Central.

I think it would be great to see a manager come from within, and given the constraints of our budget and the timing of this announcement, it may may fiscal sense to choose from the large pool of qualified people who are already here.However, there is probably an argument to be made that picking from outside the region helps remove at least some initial political bias.  It's hard to imagine living here and being an engaged member of the community without picking up an opinion or two about how things are run on the political side, which is fine.  But at some point, it ceases to be merely a handful of opinions and starts to become an agenda.I'm happy to have someone dispel my fears.  :)

I have no inside information about this, either currently or when she was hired.  But this statement from her letter concerns me: "By the end of June I will have been here over 2 ½ years. This is not as long as I had originally thought I would stay, but life isn't always as we plan it"Did Ms. Blackmon inform the BOCC that she planned to work for only a short time?  If she did, why did they hire her?  If she didn't, then she wasn't entirely candid with the board, and maybe it is best that she leaves.  Either way, in the budget crisis we all lose in the short term. 

I read that as a statement that she is leaving sooner than she expected to. 

She states in her announcement that she stayed longer than she expected to.  But I really do think she meant to write the opposite.  Otherwise, well, she's got bad manners! 

Okay, so she did say this is sooner than she expected.  The "over 2.5 years" clause makes it sound like she's ramping up to something else.  Sorry. - c. 

It would be poor planning on their part to hire a person who had no intention of retaining the job for the long haul. Afterall one of their goals should be job retention. I feel that we should be looking within our county for a new manager. It only makes sense to me because if the county manager was a county resident then I believe that person would better know what the county's needs and priorities are (or should be). It just makes for more efficent leadership.

Last time that I looked at the data, the average tenure in NC for county managers was around four years.  Of course, part of the explanation is that North Carolina ranks 28th in size by area, but our 100 counties makes us the seventh in terms of the most counties in the US.  Change is frequent and becoming more so.    The "long haul" managers seem to be fading, so for us "long haul" might mean 7-10 years these days.Note that we have two assistant county managers, but it will be up to the BoCC to decide if one of them moves up or they decide on someone else.

Jason makes a very good point about internal bias.  We see what happens in corporate environments when co-workers become bosses.  When this position is posted, we'll get eager applicants from far & wide.  We don't have time to rule out any candidate who doesn't reside in Orange... but Orange residents will certainly stand out.  From Ms. Blackmon's farewell message, it appears obvious that she had no affinity for this area from the get-go.  Something tells me that's not exactly what she meant to say. 

Anita and Catherine, thanks for discussing Ms. Blackmon's wording.  I was incorrect in my post yesterday. 

I don't believe Ms. Blackmon's departure will bring any mourning from county staff or those who have worked closely with the County over all these years.If possible the BOCC should call upon Rod Visser, again, to take the helm of county government while a new manager is carefully and slowly sought. Rod is practical,visionary and bears the trust of anyone who has worked with him on any County matters. Those qualities will be very important as we proceed through these difficult times. 

Bringing Rod Visser back would be an excellent decision. He is local, he knows the job, and he's responsive to the general public.

From today's Carrboro Citizen, Blackmon resigns as Orange County manager

Bryant Colson, a member of several county task forces and commissions, said that he had worked with many county and city managers in different cities and that Blackmon was an excellent county administrator. “Like most people in her position, she’s faced with making difficult and unpopular decisions during tough and unprecedented times, a lot of which are not popular or pleasing to many citizens or the local electorate,” he said. “I have no doubt that Laura has always had the best interest of Orange County in mind and at heart. She will be missed in Orange County.”

I have a lot of confidence in Assistant County Manager Gwen Harvey as well.  No slight to Willie Best either.  I simply don't know him very well.

Re:  "Pick a local Person" ( are good reasons for going local.  Unfortunately, it is often the case that someone from out of town is more attractive than someone local, just because they are from out of town.  It's human nature:  someone from out of town is harder to get.  This is a very clear bias that must be recognized and countered where necessary.  To those who deny it can be a factor, think about dating and how the ones who are harder to get are often more attractive just because of that fact.  Otherwise very qualified people can be glossed over once someone from outside comes to the fore, just because of this factor.Also, vetting outside people can be very challenging, and doing it right  requires a lot of time and effort.  It is not uncommon for someone from outside to have very good (or uncandid) references  from people back where they work because there is a great desire to see them gone!  Also, there are way too many lawyers around telling people not to give references at all.  Getting good information on an outside candidate requires legwork, including a lot of phone calls, and often even an outside firm to really check out legal and other background matters.  It can't be assumed that a proper vetting has been done without carefully asking the right people the right questions, and that includes asking the local HR people what they really have done.  And leaving it up to them alone may not be sufficient, for various reasons.

You are right.    Doing good background work on candidates is time consuming and as much an art as a science.   References are just a starting point. When I do a search like this,  I usually talk to 20 or more people about the candidate  by the time I'm done, and most of them are not names given to me by the candidate.   It's also important to read the local newspaper where the candidate lives,  check the local databases, and talk to people "around" the candidate.    It's also important to talk to people that don't like the candidate's work  and hear why.    And its important to start researching even before you start interviewing.   Many of my clients have dodged a bullet because of the work I do.  How you ask is as important as what you ask.      There are good reasons for both internal and external hires, and local or non-local---it depends on what the client's goals are for the position.   But we can all agree that we should hire the best person we can attract and afford.    

The BOCC is having a special meeting tonight at 7pm at the Link Government Services Center on S. Cameron in Hillsborough to discuss their search.


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