Town manager eyes staff restructuring to promote big-picture efforts

kjahner@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2014 

— – Garner Town Manager Hardin Watkins says his current position stretches him and other town leaders too thin to think about the big picture, so he’s suggested adding some help.

The proposed budget presented April 29 includes money to fund a second assistant town manager position, one that would fundamentally alter town staff leadership. The Town Council has not made any commitments but the budget timeline will force its consideration.

Watkins said the proposed model, similar to new structures in Morrisville and Cary, has intrigued him for awhile. He initially broached the general idea during a January closed session for his regular evaluation when asked about things that could help him achieve town objectives. He estimated that with 10 departments reporting directly to him along with the assistant manager and special projects manager, six elected officials and external organizations, he has to maintain regular relationships with about 23 people.

“There’s no way you can effectively give folks the time and energy they need and deserve,” Watkins said. “One of the things (the plan could) do is let us to put more emphasis on being proactive and focus on external relationships.”

The new structure would put Watkins directly responsible for police and administration. Assistant town manager Rodney Dickerson, who currently manages the information technology department, would remain under Watkins and pick up oversight of public works and parks and recreation in addition to IT. The new development-focused assistant town manager would become the direct supervisor for engineering, planning, inspections and economic development.

The reduced contacts would allow Watkins to focus on town initiatives that include improving relationships with external organizations – such as state government and regional transit-planning organizations – and working toward longer-term development goals.

Paying for the new role

The budget also adds staffing to the planning department to make up for positions lost in the recession.

“Staffing in planning doesn’t allow us to do as much long-range thinking or planning, or outside the box things as we’d like to,” Watkins said.

Watkins suggested hiring from among current department heads to promote talent development within the town and to take advantage of familiarity of current staff with town operations, employees and goals. The budget proposed April 29 includes a raise of $7,000-$30,000 to get the selected candidate to the bottom end of the assistant manager-level salary range of roughly $85,000. It also sets aside $49,000 in salary and benefits to back-fill the selected candidate’s vacated position and its responsibilities.

Council members were non-committal on the move, and said it needed to be further flushed out and discussed. After bringing it forward in January he brought back a more refined idea last month in another closed session.

“I really need to see what his latest proposal is. We’ve had some discussion with him about how to free up some of his time on day-to-day activities,and to help with long-term planning and the vision of Garner’s future,” said Councilman Buck Kennedy, who said an external or internal hire could work. “Nothing is confirmed at all...it’s too early to know.”

But as both Watkins and council noted, budget season tightened the time frame; if this is to be done before July 2015, not setting aside the money now could hamstring any efforts.

“Obviously if I had started process six months ago there’d be less pressure,” Watkins said. “Everyone is interested in more time to think about the process.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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