Former Rock Hill city manager Allen fired after 12 years at NC post

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com dbracken@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

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— City Manager Russell Allen, who steered Raleigh through 12 years of growth and recession, was fired Wednesday in a 6-2 vote by the Raleigh City Council.

Council members expressed a desire for “a new direction” but offered little else to explain their action.

“He certainly worked very hard,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in an interview. “He was very dedicated to the city. But we need a different skill set now, to move the city where we’re going.”

The vote came one day after Allen’s 12th anniversary on the job. A native of Biloxi, Miss., Allen came to Raleigh in 2001 after eight years as city manager in Rock Hill.

Allen will work through June 30, three months into the final year of his contract, and the city will pay him the remainder of his $232,000 salary through March 2013.

Allen, 61, was fired without cause. City Council members were loath to criticize him, but several said the city manager had communication problems.

“I think everybody knows we’ve had some issues on communication within the city staff and with the council,” McFarlane said. “Twelve years is a pretty long time for a city manager, and we’re a very different city than we were 12 years ago. I think he was the perfect city manager for that time. Now we need a fresh set of eyes.”

Council members Mary-Ann Baldwin and Eugene Weeks cast the only votes against firing Allen.

“I feel great loyalty to Russell, but my colleagues want to go in a different direction,” Baldwin said. “I think Russell did a great job for us. We are in great financial shape. Russell took us through the recession without cutting services to residents. He negotiated a great deal for the city on the Dix property, but of course we’ll see what comes of that.”

Allen did not respond to an interview request Wednesday but issued a statement expressing gratitude for his time here.

“Raleigh has a very engaged citizenry and I hope they feel that I have been respectful, accessible and responsive,” Allen said. “Raleigh is one of the most successful cities in the country and is poised for even greater achievements. As much as I will miss this job, I am thankful for the experiences and confident in the city’s future.”

Allen is only the fifth man to serve as city manager since 1947, when Raleigh adopted the council-manager form of government. Two others had longer tenures, including his predecessor, Dempsey Benton, who held the job for 17 years. But Allen has presided over more growth than any of them, with the city adding 140,000 residents and 20 square miles since 2001.

Allen pushed controversial policies that backfired on the City Council and had to be reversed or abandoned, including a 2008 ban on new home garbage disposals and the proposed construction of a $205 million, 17-story public safety center.

Council members and city residents were caught by surprise when sanitation workers staged a bitter walkout over pay and job conditions in 2006. Allen took a tough stand in follow-up talks, refusing to join council members who agreed to talk with the workers’ union representatives.

Allen had a mixed relationship with Raleigh developers.

He took a hard line against developer John Kane’s failed attempt in 2006 and 2007 to get the City Council to approve a tax-increment financing proposal to raise money for parking decks at Kane’s North Hills. Council member Bonner Gaylord, who voted to fire Allen, works for Kane.

Allen also took a firm stance when several developers missed city-imposed deadlines on projects following the financial crisis in 2008. He advocated against giving developers extensions, and the council ultimately terminated two of these deals involving city-owned property.

While some complained about his inflexibility, others praised Allen’s management style.

“He was tough but fair and predictable and consistent, which is very important,” said Roland Gammon, owner of White Oak Properties. White Oak is part of a group that acquired a city-owned site on Fayetteville Street where a two-tower project called Charter Square is to be built.

“It’s a tough job running a business like that, with a bunch of politicians looking over your shoulder,” Gammon said.

Randall Williams, a gynecologist who ran for mayor in the 2011 election that McFarlane won, says the candidates sometimes were asked to promise that they would get rid of Allen.

“It was a campaign issue, but it never made the newspaper,” Williams said. “Some developers really don’t like him.”

McFarlane said the city will conduct a national search, and she hopes to hire a new city manger within six months.

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