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Rock Hill to open search for new city manager

A month after Carey Smith announced his retirement as city manager, Rock Hill leaders are close to launching the search for a successor.

They hope this one goes more smoothly than the last.

Before settling on Smith in 2002, the city labored through a 10-month search that included two separate batches of candidates, a last-minute withdrawal and legal questions over how many finalists must be named under South Carolina law.

Now, City Council members say they want a deliberate pace with fewer surprises - and one final decision.

"There were lessons learned in the last process," Mayor Doug Echols said in an interview. "We also ended up with a good city manager. We reached the goal. We might have had a bump or two along the way."

First up is choosing an executive search firm to recruit and vet candidates.

In two closed-door discussions over the past month, council members looked at potential firms. Talks took place in executive session because of contractual matters, but a vote on hiring a firm must take place in open session. A decision could come in April.

Search firms typically charge between $20,000 and $40,000, a review of searches in other cities showed. Rock Hill would cover the cost with money from reserve funds, city officials said.

"This isn't just a matter of putting an ad in the paper," Echols said. "There's work to make sure the candidate pool is sufficient, the council has thought about a profile, that we vet (applicants) in some way. There's just a lot of work that goes into this."

No history of turmoil

Firms not only field applications but also recruit candidates they see as good fits, said Eric Budds, deputy executive director for the S.C. Municipal Association.

"Clearly, Rock Hill has a history of stable, long-tenured city managers," Budds said. "Stability is an extremely important factor for candidates."

Smith passes the eight-year mark this week. Predecessors Russell Allen and Joe Lanford worked as Rock Hill city managers for eight and 14 years, respectively.

A Georgia firm, The Mercer Group, was used for the last search. Councilman Osbey Roddey said it's his understanding the firm has offered its services again.

"We may end up with a different firm," Roddey said. "We'll just have to go through the interviews (of firms)."

If council members choose to look internally, two veteran department heads could get consideration: Finance director David Vehaun, recently given the title of assistant city manager; and utilities director Jimmy Bagley, named public services administrator.

Bagley said last week he is definitely interested but would wait to hear about the desired qualifications. Vehaun declined to comment.

Echols committed to reach out to the public for suggestions on what to look for in the next manager. The council might host a public forum or ask individuals and groups to submit ideas in writing or on a Web site, he said.

Smith has offered to stay on for as long as needed. His last day is now Oct. 1 for state retirement benefit reasons, but the manager and his wife, Joan, aren't going anywhere. The couple plans to stay in Rock Hill.

Bumpy path led to Smith

It's a different predicament than in 2001 when then-City Manager Russell Allen accepted the top job in Raleigh, where he still works today.

Rock Hill leaders initially named Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Assistant City Manager Peter Witschen as the leading candidate among six finalists. But Witschen withdrew from consideration after reports surfaced linking him to ongoing racial discrimination cases in Florida. Witschen denied the allegations, but enough questions were raised to throw his candidacy into doubt.

Adding to the difficulty, city officials ran into uncertainty about how many names of finalists must be released to the public.

The state's Freedom of Information Act requires that information relating to "not fewer than the final three applicants" must be made available to the public.

Paul Dillingham, city attorney then and now, said the city will follow the law.

"The law stipulates the city release all the names of the finalists, no fewer than three," Dillingham said last week. "The city will of course comply with this requirement."

A second search led to Smith, plucked from the city manager job in Daytona Beach, Fla., to return to his home state. Smith was not a candidate in the original search.

Rock Hill's city manager oversees more than 700 employees, a $164 million annual budget, an electric system and water treatment system that sells water to most of York County.

The lesson from the last search, Echols said, is that thorough vetting must take place as the field narrows.

"Once you get down to a dozen, we want to know we're dealing with the cream of the crop," he said. "If there are any issues we don't know about, we certainly want to find out."