Newsmaker of the Year: Doug Paris

  • Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 12:55 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, December 30, 2012 1:39 a.m.
Doug Paris, Newsmaker of the Year. Illustration by Mark Brincefield, for the Salisbury Post
Doug Paris, Newsmaker of the Year. Illustration by Mark Brincefield, for the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Early in 2012, Doug Paris took over leadership of a city that for two years had spent more money than it took in.

What some are saying about city manager

“There is no question that he is smart. But he is beyond just smart. He has a talent for this job, and he has wisdom beyond his years. I would put him up against any experienced city manager.”

Susan Kluttz

mayor pro tem

“His biggest talents are things we didn’t even know about when we made the hire. They are not things you ask, not things that are on a resume. It has been a wonderful surprise to see his talents unfold. … He really studies human character, and because he does, he’s able to really predict outcomes accurately.”

Maggie Blackwell

city councilwoman

“Despite his lack of years, he does have a very strong sense of appropriateness and what is likely to help the community that he is leading.”

Gordon Whitaker

professor emeritus at UNC School of Government

“It was a little unusual that a young man with so little government experience was certainly being called upon to handle a good bit of the craziness of the General Assembly, as it related to broadband.”

Foster Owen

former assistant city manager

“I kept giving him bigger and bigger tasks, and he kept accomplishing them. There is a lot of capacity there (but) some things you can only learn by experience. I think he’s had five years of experience within this last year.”

David Treme

former city manager

“We have always found him to be just extremely professional and bright and committed to public service.”

Rebecca Yarbrough

senior adviser for Centralina Council of Government

“We’ve got a guy that is talented, and his heart is in Salisbury and Rowan County.”

Paul Woodson

Salisbury mayor

As Salisbury’s new city manager, Paris faced correcting not only two years of deficit spending during the Great Recession but rising costs, falling revenues and a struggling $33 million broadband utility.

The city’s fund balance teetered on the margin of noncompliance.

“It was probably the most critical time in the city’s history,” said Susan Kluttz, who was mayor for 14 years. “The economy, Fibrant, it was just a difficult time to come in and look at the challenges.”

Salisbury presented hurdles for any new city manager, but especially for an untested 28-year-old who, just six years prior, was a summer intern.

“There was no guarantee that he or anybody could do it successfully,” Kluttz said. “To do that with his career, it was a risk for him, and I don’t think people realize that.”

Two months shy of his first anniversary as city manager, Paris receives resounding praise from City Council and others who know and work with him. He is the Post’s 2012 Newsmaker of the Year.

Supporters tick off the city’s accomplishments since Paris took the helm, first as interim city manager and then in the permanent post:

• Available fund balance grew by 53 percent to $5.9 million

• Nearly $900,000 in savings over several years by refinancing bonds

• New management and nearly $2 million in savings over two years at Fibrant

• More than $5 million savings over 10 years by consolidating 911 dispatch services with Rowan County

• Securing $185,000 from Rowan County for ruggedized radios for the Salisbury Fire Department

• Opening a one-stop shop for owners and developers to speed opening or expanding a business

“He has exceeded our expectations in every way,” Mayor Paul Woodson said.

While working to “turn the ship,” as Paris has dubbed his efforts to restore the city’s financial health, the young city manager encountered a few unexpected bumps along the way: A public and bitter dispute with Rowan County Manager Gary Page over 911 consolidation. Lengthy and repeated Fibrant outages. Firefighters behaving badly.

A critical time for Salisbury became even more challenging this year.

With an apology to Page, a key hire for Fibrant and swift action to fire three firefighters and suspend another, Paris cleared each hurdle, City Council members say.

“He met the challenges and went above what we even expected,” Kluttz said. “He has done an amazing job.”

Taking risk

If Paris took a chance by accepting the job, the city took an equal risk by offering it to him. Although one of the top students to earn a public administration degree from the UNC School of Government, Paris had never led a city of any size, much less one with 33,000 residents, when he was sworn in March 20.

Paris became the youngest city manager serving a North Carolina city of Salisbury’s population or larger.

But his tender age, criticized by some as a negative, has turned out to be an advantage, Woodson said.

Paris is not hampered by decades of government bureaucracy. He has the fresh ideas, new energy and willingness to think outside the box that Salisbury needs at a challenging juncture, Woodson said.

“That’s what I love about his youth. He doesn’t have all these established ideas,” Woodson said. “He’s come to be a city manager when the world is changing, and he’s not entrenched in the old ways.”

Paris approaches his new job like a businessman, not a bureaucrat, Woodson said. He meets quarterly with department heads, who must justify their expenses. He instituted fiscal notes on any City Council agenda item that costs money, detailing how much and where the funding will come from.

On large purchases, projects and construction, Paris requires staff to complete a return-on-investment analysis.

“Before, we were just taking things at word’s value,” Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell said. “Now, there is a lot more financial analysis, which makes our job a lot easier.”

In a few cases, the return-on-investment form showed that certain expenditures weren’t wise investments, and they were dropped before they got to City Council.

Paris has been turning not only the ship but also Salisbury’s reputation as an unfriendly city for business, Woodson said. Developers have praised the one-stop shop, along with a new level of cooperation between the city and county to help move the permitting process forward faster.

Woodson, who has preached the message “what you save is what you earn” since becoming mayor in 2011, said he’s pleased that under Paris’ leadership, city employees cut $1.6 million in costs last year.

“So many who have been brought up in government never understood that concept,” Woodson said.

Paris beat out 69 candidates for the job, including another finalist with decades of experience as a city manager.

When City Council members announced their unanimous decision, Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said he had compared all other candidates to Paris, who had served as interim for seven months during the nationwide search.

“Many had experience, but to me Doug has the energy and is a visionary,” Kennedy said.

Early workout

Six feet tall and trim, Paris works out at 5 a.m. many days at the YMCA for about an hour. Despite the routine, he complains he’s still gained weight since taking the job.

By 6 a.m., his phone and inbox are filling with messages, requests and issues that need his attention.

In the spring and fall, Paris often takes off for Denton on his road bike — a 60-mile round trip — to stay in shape and relax.

A Rowan County native, Paris is an only child, the son of Zina Risley of Richfield and Todd Paris of Salisbury. He grew up in Rockwell and Faith and graduated from East Rowan High School in 2002.

He wanted to become an attorney like his father and studied political science at UNC-Chapel Hill with plans to attend law school. After his first year of college, he spent the summer working at McKenzie Taxidermy in Salisbury, making archery targets.

The next summer, he landed a job clerking for a Chapel Hill law firm that included the Orange County attorney. Through him, Paris met the county manager and began to learn about local government. He was hooked.

“He was doing all this important work and shaping the future of the county,” Paris said.

Instead of law school, he completed the two-year public administration program at the UNC School of Government. Retired Professor Gordon Whitaker puts Paris in the top 10 percent of students.

“Doug was a standout,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker described Paris as intelligent and thoughtful, with a laser-like focus on his goal to become a city manager. His meteoric rise from intern to manager in less than six years speaks to his maturity and ability to work with people, Whitaker said.

“He is quite poised in dealing with all sorts of situations and people,” he said. “He understands who he is and is interested in developing relationships with other people.”

Developing relationship

Paris had to work on developing a relationship with Page. Some City Council members have acknowledged that Paris responded over-eagerly to what he perceived as an ultimatum from Page regarding 911 consolidation.

“Our instructions to him were, ‘We need to be about solving problems, not about having a soap opera in the newspaper,’ ” Councilman Brian Miller said.

The conflict came early in Paris’ tenure, when he was “acutely aware of his youth,” Blackwell said. “He felt the need at that moment to assert himself so that he wouldn’t be taken advantage of as the young guy. I understand why he did it, and I’m glad that he has worked hard on that relationship since then.”

Kluttz said Paris came on strong because he had just come off the battlefield with big cable in Raleigh, where he helped negotiate Salisbury’s exemption from a new state law that would have crippled Fibrant.

“He was battling for us and defending us in any situation,” said Kluttz, who describes Paris as guileless.

Paris’ reaction to the 911 dispute also had roots in his passion for firefighter safety, having served as assistant to the city manager in 2008 when two Salisbury firefighters died in the Salisbury Millwork blaze, Kluttz said.

As city manager, he negotiated a compromise with the county that includes a dedicated, round-the-clock dispatcher for firefighters, which Paris calls “their angel in the sky.” It’s one of his proudest achievements.

Paris and Page now meet regularly and seem to trust one another, observers say. But overall, the city-county relationship continues to be strained, particularly regarding the site of the future school central office.

Paris has not backed down from new county commission Chairman Jim Sides, one of the city’s harshest critics who recently bowed out of a Jan. 3 meeting with the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education because City Council is invited.

Sides contends the city is not a partner in the central office project, although Salisbury is donating parking and land for the building and removing contaminated soil from the downtown site.

Paris recently gave Sides a gift-wrapped dictionary, so the commissioner would know the definition of “stakeholder.”

Social media man

Like his Gen X peers, Paris considers social media second nature. He has 536 Facebook friends and has sent some 1,165 tweets, although he uses Twitter less now that he’s city manager. No time, he said.

As a first order of business, he charged his staff with revamping the city’s website.

City Council members regularly receive emails and texts from him at 3 or 4 a.m. A house fire, a Fibrant outage, a major personnel change — Paris wants City Council members to hear it from him first.

He also visits and phones them. He’s in almost daily contact with Woodson, and weekly contact with other council members, although the frequency increases during a crisis or fast-moving situation.

“He’s got our back,” Blackwell said, calling Paris the “penultimate communicator.”

City Council praised Paris for acting quickly and professionally when the second sexual misconduct scandal in two years rocked the Salisbury Fire Department.

Paris was proactive, alerting the media within hours that the Fire Department was under investigation. His staff provided personnel information that has been deemed a public record under state statute.

Unlike the first scandal in early 2011, termination and disciplinary letters generated as a result of the second investigation met the letter and spirit of the public records law.

Paris would not comment on his administration’s handling of the investigation other than to say, “We will act in a professional manner that makes our citizens proud.”

Redirecting praise

Even-tempered and soft-spoken but intense, Paris deflects praise and redirects compliments to City Council members.

“They are the leaders of the community. They are like the architect, and I am the construction worker,” he said. “They really care about the community and want what’s best for the community. That makes my job meaningful.”

The secret to what makes Salisbury special, he says, is the annual strategic planning retreat implemented by his mentor and predecessor, former City Manager David Treme.

Every February, council members meet for two days to set goals and objectives. Paris keeps the resulting document, a lengthy blueprint for the city’s development, close at hand.

“They give me the road map for the year. They set the vision and direction for the city,” Paris said. “… Then I am able to align 500 employees and a $70 million budget behind those goals.”

An introvert, Paris often walks to his office on the weekends and goes through a brainstorming exercise alone. He tapes large sheets of white paper around a small conference room and searches for the best ways to achieve City Council goals.

He then asks his staff leaders, called the Red Team, for their feedback.

Paris keeps the posters he created when he became interim city manager on the back of his office door. Written with markers, they include hand-drawn charts and graphs and lists of action items.

They read in part:
• Financial stability — need the fiscal discipline to get out of the “deficit zone” and then not spend money once back in the black.

• Fund balance — increase available fund balance by 50 percent in two years (he beat this goal, raising the fund balance by 53 percent in one year).

Historically, Salisbury has run a lean fund balance, around 15 percent of total general fund expenditures. Paris would like to see the city in the 30-to-35 percent range. State average is 50 percent.

• Water-sewer rates — stabilize them. In the past, customers have seen rate increases up to 17 percent. For the first time in 21 years, rates did not increase this year.

• Fibrant — find the “sweet spot” where revenues cover the cost of running the fiber-to-the-home network and internal loans from other city funds drop off.

Fibrant is now generating enough money to make the $3 million annual debt payments on $35.86 million in bonds that paid to build the network.

But internal loans worth $7.5 million pay the network’s expenses, including about $1,350 for each installation.

Including interest, the city will pay close to $70 million overall for the network. Failure, Paris has said, is not an option.

Paris hired Mike Jury, a 25-year veteran of the cable industry, to run Fibrant. A growing number of Fibrant employees also come from the private sector, including companies like Time Warner Cable and Lexcom. Together, they’ve cut nearly $2 million in costs over the next two years.

Key knowledge

Paris’ knowledge of Fibrant helped tip the scales in his favor when he applied for the city manager’s job.

“We knew we had to attack Fibrant immediately,” Woodson said.

City Council members say they are pleased with the utility’s progress under Paris’ leadership.

Yet Fibrant continues to battle a reliability problem, and vendors for a company that supplies equipment for Fibrant said the network has had more challenges than other start-ups.

Paris acknowledges the problems yet takes them in stride.

“It is not time to celebrate in this area. We still have a lot of work left to do,” said Paris, who turned 29 on Thursday. “But I feel confident, based on the track record with other items, that we will get there and be successful.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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