It’s January and the City’s annual budget rush is intensifying. City Manager Michael Peoples and the three members of his management team are preparing for the Jan. 24-25 budget retreat with the Mayor and City Council. During that two-day session, the elected officials will determine the City’s goals and objectives for the coming year.
The Council’s goals and objectives make up the Strategic Plan – the roadmap for what the City prioritizes and spends money on each year. Turning that Strategic Plan into reality and implementing the City Council’s wishes are the responsibilities of the City Manager's Office.
It all starts with the citizens who elect the City Council and Mayor. As representatives of the people, the elected officials establish priorities and vote on issues that are important to the City and its residents. The management team then makes sure the Council’s decisions are put into action and that Gastonia’s municipal government runs smoothly.
Gastonia uses a council-manager form of government. The City Council has legislative authority. A hired city manager serves as the City’s chief administrative officer, overseeing day-to-day operations. In this form of government, the Mayor presides over Council meetings, but the law does not give him or her far-reaching executive authority. Most executive responsibilities are delegated to the city manager, including hiring and supervising City employees, establishing the agenda for City Council meetings, and implementing the policies approved by the Council.
“I am a direct employee of the Mayor and City Council,” Peoples says. “I am accountable and responsible for everything that happens in the City of Gastonia.”
Also part of the management team are Deputy City Manager Todd Carpenter and Assistant City Managers Melody Braddy and Quentin McPhatter. Each of the four oversees several City departments, as shown in the organizational chart. The portfolio assignments are based on each manager’s background, education and experience. Also in the City Manager’s Office are City Clerk Sherry Dunaway and Deputy City Clerk Candice Owenby. The management team is advised by the City Attorney’s Office, made up of City Attorney Ash Smith, Assistant City Attorney Charles Graham, Police Attorney Laura Burton and Paralegal Denise Johnson.
“Even though we each have our own departments (to oversee), our job is managing the City,” Carpenter says. That means the executive team needs to know what’s happening throughout the entire City government and in all departments, divisions and programs.
Knowledge of how all the departments work and the challenges facing each department is especially important when developing the City’s budget. The budget calendar runs from October through June, with the bulk of the work starting in January. Department directors make their budget presentations to the management team in February and March, often requesting additional employees, equipment or technology. The management team must prioritize each department’s line-item requests and make sure they match up with the City Council’s stated goals and objectives. Most years, there is not enough money to fund all of the requests.
In addition to the budget, the management team makes decisions on difficult issues like personnel matters, legal questions, public safety issues, project schedules and more. “The decisions that have to be made can be very hard,” Carpenter says. “We have to make tough decisions that affect our employees. It can be stressful.”
Braddy says most employees don’t realize how much time and effort the management team spends before making a decision. “We spend a lot of time weighing all options, trying to make the best decisions for the citizens, for the Mayor and Council, and for the employees,” she says. “We, as a group, spend a lot of time thinking about our employees.”
To guide their decision making, the team relies on the City Council’s Strategic Plan, as well as laws and statutes, and the Code of Ethics of the International City-County Management Association. Peoples calls the professional organization’s Code of Ethics a “moral compass,” and the document contains phrases such as “social responsibility,” “highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity,” “professional respect,” “uphold the public trust” and serving “the best interests of the people.”
Peoples emphasizes that the City management team’s decisions are not guided by political party affiliation or partisanship. “I’m not Republican, I’m not Democrat. I’m not registered as belonging to either major political party. I just take direction from the Mayor and Council and carry out their wishes,” Peoples says.
McPhatter agrees. “Service delivery is not partisan,” he says. “The trash has to get picked up, and it’s not Republican or Democrat. Potholes affect everyone, regardless of what party they belong to.”
“It goes back to the Code of Ethics,” Peoples says of the City’s management team. “We are not political. We are not elected. We are not bound by a party platform. That’s sometimes a misunderstanding.”
Another surprise might be the amount of time the management team spends in meetings. Peoples describes it as “incredible.” Daytime and evening hours are filled with meetings: City Council twice a month, 10 City Council committees, department head meetings on alternating weeks, FUSE planning, City budget, various regional governmental groups, civic organizations, ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings and so much more. “It’s a 24/7 job,” Peoples says. Even at that pace, Braddy says there is not enough time to do all that they want to do.
As a result, Peoples says finding life/work balance can be challenging. So can managing expectations: those of the public, the Council, employees and even his own. “I’d like it to be utopia,” Peoples says. “But it’s not and never will be. So you have to manage yourself and your expectations. You make sure you have the right people in the right positions and trust in their abilities to get the job done.”
Despite the round-the-clock responsibilities and the stress, the four managers are quick to agree that giving back to the community is the best part of their jobs. “It’s making a difference to improve the community,” McPhatter says. “Being part of something bigger than you. Seeing something tangible from your hard work.”
‘Always have our employees in mind’
The four managers know that they, alone, do not carry out the Strategic Plan or the wishes of Council. The day-to-day work is done by the City’s 900-plus employees. And Carpenter praises employees for their efforts. “I want our employees to know that we truly want the City of Gastonia to be the best employer in this County,” he says. “And we (the management team) want to be great for our employees.”
Carpenter says making sure Gastonia is a great place to work and live means keeping employees in mind when managers must make those tough decisions. “We really do care about our employees and really try to make the best decisions we can for our employees,” Carpenter says. “If our employees are happy at work and proud of where they work, it shows. Our citizens see it, and our community is better because of it.”
Pride in Gastonia and passion to make our community even better are the heartbeat of the Manager’s Office. Tangible progress toward the City's goals makes the long meetings, the late nights and the tough decisions all worth it.