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From the Editor: Mayor as Manager

Bartlett, William Anderson, Wes Anderson, Moton and Bowers; Case not pictured

Barbara Lipscomb became Greenville’s city manager in mid-August. During her second city council meeting a month later, she made it clear that she is not as interested in keeping city councilors happy as in performing the duties for which they’ve hired her.

Under Greenville’s Council-Manager form of government the mayor and council are elected every two years to be the visionaries, to set broad policies and goals. They are not required to have any significant area of expertise in cities, management or leadership. At the moment, these seats are populated by a human services worker, a Sorbonne-educated writer, a self-employed life insurance salesman, a professor of religious studies, a computer science major turned businessman, a (seeming) lifetime member of the body, and, as mayor, a self-described businessman.

In other words, the mayor and council are ordinary citizens. They told the residents of Greenville they had something to offer the city, and enough voters bought it.

Lipscomb and the 700-plus member staff she directs, on the other hand, are well-trained experts in their fields. Greenville’s new manager has a master’s degree in regional planning, certifications in city/county management, labor relations and redevelopment, and nearly 40 years of ensuring services are delivered, in a host of cities. Résumés of other city staff show comparable credentials.

Observant citizens have noticed, as councilor Calvin Mercer has pointed out since before the last manager, Wayne Bowers, announced his retirement in January, that this council has a tendency to be a little too hands-on in its leadership.

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Lipscomb confirmed this September 13. In a public meeting, she asked councilors to bring their requests for information directly to her, not to department managers or other staff. It is her job, she said, to coordinate with the city’s departments and set deadlines for information requests.

Lipscomb explained that city staff have federal, state and local regulatory work to perform every day, along with striving to meet council’s objectives and policies, plus the myriad programs staff must administer. She said requests from councilors made to department heads throw offices into crisis mode. (See the segment here, at 1:46.)

After all, what city worker wants to piss off a councilor?

“… It would help [mitigate] some of that,” Lipscomb said, “if my office was the coordinating office.”

Third-term councilor Max Joyner rejoined Lipscomb’s comments by requesting some proposals on how the city council is supposed to operate.

But Lipscomb’s remarks, taken with Mayor Allen Thomas’ reference to the “interesting coincidence” of high-ranking city staff leaving, deserves further examination.

And while it’s true that people retire and/or move on, there seems to be more than coincidence at work here.

Meddling in Administration

Now we are losing two more executive city staff, bringing to six the number since the beginning of the year. Why? Surely happenstance is a possibility, but given Lipscomb’s recent public comments, the mayor’s claim that these represent only an “interesting coincidence” falls flat.

An article in yesterday’s Daily Reflector on the two most recent losses to the city, interim Police Chief Joe Bartlett and Human Resources Director Gerry Case, both 30+ year city veterans, cites the mayor requesting a list of finalists for Police Chief and Public Works Director within the next 30 days.

Because Greenville is a Council-Manager city, only the hiring of those who work for city council — the manager, attorney and clerk — are to be overseen by city council. All other hires are solely up to Lipscomb, whom the council unanimously agreed to hire a few short months ago.

But last December, in just its second meeting since being seated, this city council set the tone for the sort of guidance its majority seems most interested in providing: Intrusive, and hands-on.

During the manager’s report at that December 8 session, then-Police Chief William Anderson gave a crime report (skip to 4:00), updating council on the police department’s efforts to curb downtown crime.

Questioning Anderson about police department procedures, Councilor Max Joyner expressed concern: “[No one says] Max, here’s what we’re gonna do this week on gangs, here’s what we’re gonna do on whatever, whatever. No one’s told me that.”

Anderson explains that such reports would be inappropriate from a police standpoint, since making plans public would let the criminals know what the police intend to do.

Such reports would also be inappropriate according to the form of Greenville’s government. The city council’s job is not to oversee individual departments. It’s the City Manager’s job.

Minutes later (4:17), Mayor Thomas made reference to an earlier meeting in which he and Anderson discussed successful crime reduction programs. Thomas then directly asked Anderson, “Are you willing to go out and explore with me, to talk to some of these other chiefs?[…] I need your commitment that you’ll go out with me and find these solutions. Will you commit to do that with me?” Anderson replied, “Absolutely.”

The Mayor’s interference in the workings of city departments was out of bounds. But it didn’t stop there.

On January 28th, Thomas wrote a letter to Anderson giving direct instructions for areas of improvement, and again made reference to previous conversations.

Anderson, of course, is now gone.

The mayor is presumably accustomed to holding a management position. But he’d do well to study up on appropriate interaction with city staff. Because based on all indications, he and the majority of city council remain way out of bounds.

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Responses (9)

  1. Brenda Ernest says:

    I agree that the current council majority has a different understanding of their powers, and the limits on them, according to our charter. I think we voters need to actively work to replace those Councilors who are currently ruling by fiat and intimidation of the professional staff. The mayor, in particular, should be “one and done” in his tenure before he does any more damage. Other Councilors who represent nothing more than their own individual financial and/or vainglorious interests should be on notice that not all the people are fooled and their time in office may be over after the next election.

  2. Linda Leighty says:

    Why should we be surprised? When Mayor Thomas campaigned for his position, he made it very, very clear that he had a skewed view of Greenville’s Council-Manager form of government. He was quite open in declaring himself himself as a take-charge activist. Three cheers to Ms. Lipscomb if she proves to be a strong person who can stand up to meddling.

  3. Dennis Mitchell says:

    The City Council does not have the power you speak of to interfere with government. I sounds good to write but holds no merit. While I have I personally seen council members put their noses where they don’t belong, it is not to the extent written. Politics in Greenville are starting to look like Washington, some have the main agenda to see the current council fail to prove a point instead of help make our city a better place.

    • Lisa Wilbourne says:

      The above column is not a piece of speculative fiction that posits a possible reality. It points out an observable trend based on documented events. If you are suggesting the documents are somehow invalid, that is information that needs to be shared with the public.

      Readers deserve a clarification of your statement that “some have the main agenda to see the current council fail… instead of to help make our city a better place.” As it reads, it looks like finger-pointing and an unwillingness to accept criticism from those who disagree with your votes, Councilor Mitchell.

      • Dennis Mitchell says:

        A possible reality is in itself speculative fiction. As far from it being an observable trend based on events is a stretch. It was known that the interim Police Chief was going to retire before he took the Job. Thom received a huge promotion and Gerry Case has been flirting with retirement for years, I have been told. So to make an insinuation without facts that somehow City Council is forcing staff to leave is without merit and shows your slanted view point. The Greenville Guardian’s objectivity is questionable and has nothing about who criticizes my votes as I don’t believe you did above.

        The doom and gloom reporting of you and others could be scaring people from coming to our city.

        • Artemis Kares says:

          Very interesting that first Councilman Joyner on the Henry Hinton show states his dissatisfaction with the Daily Reflector and now Councilman Mitchell questions the impartiality of the Guardian. It’s beginning to sound like the conspiracy theory that Councilman Mitchell often brings up at Council. I hope the Council will support the new proposal by Manager Lipscomb to channel Mayor and Council interactions with city staff through her. Mayor Thomas’s memo to Chief Anderson, which interestingly he did not send to Council persons Blackburn and Mercer; but did send to Glover, Smith, and Mitchell was inappropriate as was Councilman Mitchell and Councilwoman Glover’s meeting with city staff who had employment grievances. You are correct, Councilman Mitchell, that “The City Council does not have the power you {the Guardian} speak of to interfere with government. ” But it is clear the Mayor and certain members of Council are trying to exercise power they do not have.

          • Dennis Mitchell says:

            If you watch the council meeting, you will see I am the council person who asked the manager to bring back communication guidelines to the council. There are a few council people who may try to micro manage, do your research, one person in particular may surprise you but then again, it will be spun into something different.

          • Artemis Kares says:

            This is in response to Mitchell’s comments below: I think you are confusing asking for information, which was necessary to refute the Mayor’s inaccurate statistics, with micromanaging.

  4. Denise Cerniglia says:

    Au contraire! It’s precisely the Guardian’s reporting that makes me want to move to Greenville.

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