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Seaford is first woman in county hired for town manager position since the ’90s

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

LANDIS — Though every municipality in Rowan County currently has a woman serving as town clerk, Landis’ selection of Diane Seaford as manager in March meant the first woman would be hired for the position in Rowan since the 1990s.

Seaford was hired as finance officer for the town in September 2019 and worked as assistant town manager under Leonard Barefoot, a China Grove local who was hired in January 2020 to help stabilize the town and assist in hiring a permanent manager. Seaford previously worked as a budget officer for Cabarrus County, holds a degree in business from Meredith College in Raleigh as well as a master’s of business administration from Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer.

“I’m thrilled not only as a woman, but (also) as a person to serve this community. I’ve grown attached to this little town in the last year and a half,” Seaford, who lives in Concord, said.

Among municipalities in Rowan County, Spencer is the first town to have hired a woman for the administrator or manager position. Hilda Palmer served that role from 1963 to 1990. Peter Franzese was hired as the manager for Spencer in December.

Each municipality in North Carolina can decide to operate its governmental operations on one of two models, which is outlined in a municipal charter. The first form is a mayor-council model, which does not include a manager. The mayor and council collectively make decisions about the town’s finances and the services it provides. Boards of aldermen or councils supervise clerks with this form. Particularly in small towns, a the town clerk may be the top staff person.

A variation of that model, however, is mayor-council with an administrator, who is usually hired when the daily operations of the municipality become too much for elected officials to oversee.

The other model of government is a council-manager form, where the mayor and council establish policies and hire a manager to implement those policies and hold statutory authority to hire and terminate employees. With this model, the mayor and council also hires the attorney and clerk directly.

Such is the case for the city of Salisbury, which has never had a woman hold the role. Lane Bailey has served as manager since 2015, and was preceded by Douglas Paris Jr., who served from 2012-14. David Treme served as the town manager for Salisbury from 1986-2011.

In China Grove, Ken Deal has served as manager for at least a decade. Before him was Eric Davis.

Deal said his longtime presence in the community is what he believes held a lot of weight when the town was hiring for the position.

The town of East Spencer is currently working to hire a new manager, and Mayor Barbara Mallett says at least one applicant is a woman. The board is scheduled to meet in a closed session this week to discuss candidates for the position, and Mallett said there’s a chance the town could join Spencer and Landis in hiring a woman to serve that role.

East Spencer has experienced a high rate of turnover for the administrator position in recent years. James Bennett left the role this year after being hired in October 2019. Before Bennett, Phil Conrad assumed the position in April 2019 from F.E. Isenhour, who had served since 2016. Preceding Isenhour was David Jaynes as well as Macon Sammons Jr., who stepped down in 2015.

Mallett said she recalls one woman who applied for the town administrator position before Bennett was hired. Conrad, who is serves as director of the Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization, is serving in an informal interim role to assist the town in hiring a full-time manager.

Before serving the town of East Spencer, Conrad worked as manager in the town of Granite Quarry from 2015 to February 2019. That position is now held by Larry Smith, who began serving Granite Quarry as the interim following Conrad’s departure. Barbie Blackwell, who was town clerk at the time, served some time as interim before Conrad was hired to replace Justin Price.

In Kannapolis, Mike Legg has served as city manager since 2004. Additionally, the deputy manager and two assistant managers are also men, though the assistant to the town manager is a woman named Kristin Jones.

The towns of Rockwell, Faith and Cleveland do not have town administrator or manager positions. Instead, town clerks are tasked with handling personnel matters, finances and the budget.

Marlene Dunn has served as the town clerk for Rockwell since 1994. Before her, Sue Morton served as clerk for at least 20 years, Dunn said. As clerk, Dunn is tasked with handling the town’s finances, budget and personnel matters. Assistant Clerk Cherie Lefler, who started in 2016, handles the town’s accounts receivable/accounts payable, various tax processes and reservations for town hall events.

“We’re here everyday and we have our fingers on the pulse for pretty much everything here,” Dunn said.

Dunn cannot hire or terminate town staff, as that power is instead yielded to the town aldermen and mayor.

Though Granite Quarry and Rockwell are similar in size, the decision to have a manager position is ultimately up to the town leadership. She added that municipalities will often have certain minimum requirements for their manager, such as college degrees.

Karen Fink has served as the clerk and finance officer for the town of Faith since 1997 and assumed personnel and human resources roles in 2001. Before her was Swannetta Fink, who began in 1992.

In Cleveland, Cathy Payne holds the town clerk/finance officer position, while Kelly Rodgers serves as deputy clerk and zoning administrator.

In 2017, just 21% of North Carolina’s city managers positions were women. The gender gap in local government across the U.S. seems to mirror state and federal gender gaps as well, with a larger gap in top-level positions and a much smaller gap for clerk positions, according to a 2020 analysis by Nathan Lee of Civic Pulse. Civic Pulse is a nonprofit organization focused on expanding knowledge of government officials in the United States. Lee’s findings showed that 16% of top-level local positions across the U.S. are women. By contrast, 81% of women serve in a clerk position in local government.

Though Lee’s findings didn’t delve into possible reasons for the gender gap, he said the data should beg the question of whether the gap is influenced by the role elections play in explaining the presence or absence of women in governmental operations. Civic Pulse also reports that localities across the nation have seen an increase in the representation of women, but that increase is still gradual.

Leisha DeHart-Davis, a public administration and government professor at the UNC School of Government, says shortcomings in hiring women for top local government positions can stem from hiring bodies’ “mental image” of what leaders should look like.

“Research tells us that people generally envision slightly older, tall, white men when they picture a leader,” DeHart-Davis said in a blog titled “Hidden Figures in Local Government Leadership.” “This automatic thinking becomes problematic when we evaluate potential candidates for leadership positions. The slightly older, taller, white males will have an automatic edge, despite the fact that the better leader — the one who would do great things for the community — may not be slightly older or white or male.”

But DeHart-Davis suggests hiring bodies test themselves on implicit bias. For example, resumes can be blinded within the first round of reviews and hiring committees can post images of diverse persons participating in leadership positions during the hiring process. It also takes women stepping up to pursue those top positions.

“It takes research and education on diversity dynamics in local government to develop strategies for moving the field forward,” DeHart-Davis said. “And it takes elected officials who realize that there are ‘hidden figures’ in local government — people who will make exceptional leaders regardless of their skin color or gender.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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