Five years in, Smith relishes gains, addresses his critics

Carey Smith has seen a lot of changes since taking over as Rock Hill's city manager in 2002.
Carey Smith has seen a lot of changes since taking over as Rock Hill's city manager in 2002.

Through the giant windows in his office at City Hall, Carey Smith enjoys a wide view of the town he has shepherded for the last five years.

Off in the distance, cranes and earthmovers are bringing the Textile Corridor back to life. Businesses are returning to once-dormant lots. And taxes have held steady, next year staying at the same rate as in 1989.

Rock Hill, by most measures, is prospering. The man at the forefront is Smith, who at 64 is nearing the end of a career that spans four decades. As the city manager passes the five-year mark in Rock Hill, even adversaries praise his ability to find creative solutions to tough problems.

But as a recent clash with local utility companies has shown, frustrations also linger.

Critics say Smith governs with a hard-line style that leaves little room for compromise -- and too often, little time for differing views to be heard. Some believe his rigid approach invites policy battles that could be settled amicably.

"My perception is the city has an atmosphere of arrogance, which leads to an attitude of indifference on the part of staff," said one longtime community leader who asked not to be identified. "He's the one that could change it."

Reflecting on his tenure last week during a two-hour drive around Rock Hill, Smith refuted notions of a lone ranger style. But he said public perceptions matter to him.

"I care a lot," he said. "It makes a difference to me what people think. On the other hand, I can't let that preclude me from doing what I believe to be the right thing."

Critics: Talk to the people

Criticism has flared toward Smith in three particular instances.

Since 2005, opponents of a landfill in south Rock Hill have sounded a now-familiar complaint: They were misled because City Hall did not actually use the term landfill in describing the project before it was approved.

Instead, Smith told staffers to describe the facility in public as a "recycling and reclamation facility." He said the landfill term conveys a false image of what was being proposed. Neighbors have since sued to block the project.

"There's this perception that the end justifies the means," landfill opponent Christi Cox said recently. "Trying to push something through sometimes causes more problems. By not being as open as possible, it can actually slow down what you're trying to accomplish."

Last year, Smith sparred with local bar and club owners in pushing a ban on alcohol sales after 2 a.m. Owners complained they didn't find out until two days before the City Council voted.When they voiced concerns, they say he came across as unreceptive.

"He talked to me like I was a 2-year-old," says Jim Morton, owner of The Money on Cherry Road. "There was never really any negotiation. He's probably good at doing a lot of city business, but he doesn't care who he has to walk over to get it done."

In a more recent rift, local utility companies blame City Hall for mishandling a disagreement over who should pay to bury overhead utility lines. They say Smith resisted compromise and seemed intent on writing the policy on his terms.

"He has been polite and willing to meet with us," said Marc Howie, director of marketing and government relations for the York Electric Cooperative. "But a couple of the things I asked for, I don't think we ever got a response. Sometimes people bring legitimate concerns ... and they're somewhat ignored."

Reputation vs. reality

Others who have worked closely with Smith say his reputation as a hard-liner is overblown.

"He has his ways of doing things that are just a little different than some," said Jim Villano, who retired last year as the city's public works director. "He would never really sit and argue with you. He would weigh what you had to say and then make a decision. And you either like it or you don't like it."

In many ways, Smith's style is a product of the times, says former City Councilman Henry Woods, who has known Smith since their days at The Citadel. The public wants more services but not more taxes, putting heavy demands on local officials to strike a balance.

"Because of the nature of the beast, there's not near as much effort for consensus as there used to be," Woods said. "He has all these things that he's got to do. Our expenses are increasing. I don't think you have as much time to be nice as you used to."

Smith enjoys solid support from his current bosses on the council, who pay him an annual salary of $158,745.60.

"He doesn't get paid to do the popular thing all the time," said Councilman John Gettys. "To see where we've come in five years, it's night and day. You've got to credit him for that."

For his part, Smith believes that he has softened over four decades in seven cities. He began at age 24 as assistant city manager in Spartanburg.

"Earlier in my career, I might've been less inclined to seek out other opinions and perhaps dig in my heels on something," he said. "In time, I came to realize that was not a good way to approach things. I don't see myself in that way any longer."

Different in private

Colleagues say Smith's tough-guy persona befits his military education -- he graduated from The Citadel in 1964. But to many, it also belies a softer side that isn't seen by the public.

Early in his tenure, Smith grew visibly emotional when being briefed by staffers on the impoverished conditions in the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood, where some homes lack adequate heat and plumbing. He has pushed the city to spend millions on improvements.

The emotion was evident as Smith drove through Hagins-Fewell on a recent afternoon. He pointed to oak trees that he would like to see preserved along with an old school house nearby. He stopped next to a boarded-up mill home.

"The biggest gap in our housing program is funds for tearing down homes and getting that land (for new projects)," he said, his voice rising. "Our core city still needs a lot of work. We can't forget about that."

A devout Methodist, Smith rises at 5:15 a.m. each weekday. He does 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 60 curls, 90 leg-lifts and 30 extensions on an exercise wheel. After showering, he sits down in an upstairs study to read from a daily devotional booklet sent by the Radio Bible Class.

The routine rarely changes.

"I don't do it to live longer," he said. "Because I don't know how long my life will be. It really has more to do with the quality of that life. I think that's what we're told to do. The Scriptures teach us to do that."

Smith has faced a series of personal hardships in recent years. His 50-year-old sister, Pamela, died of cancer in 2001. Son Carey Jr. was nearly killed in a car accident involving a drunken driver in 2005. Smith's mother, Frances, died in 2004 and his father, Harry, died in April.

The two men shared a close relationship -- Smith left his job as city manager in Daytona Beach, Fla., in large part to be closer to his parents in Greer, where he grew up. Rock Hill is almost certainly his last stop.

At this late stage in his career, Smith has said he feels more comfortable dealing with scrutiny now than as a younger man. Still, the public side does not always come naturally.

"I'm not a politician," he said just before starting in 2002. "I just work for some."

Carey Smith: In his own words

• On his proudest accomplishment: Hiring Fire Chief Mike Blackmon and Police Chief John Gregory early in his tenure -- at a time when both departments were in turmoil. Gregory is the city's first black chief.

• On his greatest regret: Taking so long to get a tax-increment finance agreement in place at the Textile Corridor. "You asked me the question. My answer is, I wish that process could have come along more quickly." He thinks it could've taken six months instead of two years.

• On his top priorities before retirement: Revitalizing the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood; seeing the Textile Corridor and former Celanese site get redeveloped

• On how much longer he'll work: With 28 years built up in the state retirement system, he can retire when he wants. But he plans to work several more years and says he has no timeline. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing," he said.