Decatur's director of development position has been vacant almost seven months and Mayor Tab Bowling says it's time to fill it, but several council members question the wisdom of having that director supervise four departments.
Except for some temporary consulting work, Wally Terry retired as director of development April 30, and the first of three failed searches for his replacement occurred a year before that. The previous council and Bowling couldn’t agree on whether to fill the vacancy while keeping job duties the same or change the leadership structure for City Hall.
The vacuum created by Terry's departure was complicated last week when Chief Financial Officer John Andrzejewski announced his plan to retire in January.
Bowling said he's ready for the council to fill both the CFO and director of development positions. As director of development, Terry oversaw the Engineering, Planning, Community Development, and Building departments, as well as coordinating economic development. Since his retirement, those duties have fallen to Bowling.
“It’s time to move forward and get us some help,” Bowling said.
Bowling said he thinks one person can act as director over the four departments, as Terry did, with departmental managers providing direct supervision.
However, Councilman Billy Jackson would like to hire or promote a director for each department, even though he knows this will cost the city more.
A consultant, Sarah McKee, of GovHR, said in June the applicants she supplied for the director of development position were “highly qualified,” but she noted it’s a “difficult task” to find someone with experience and knowledge in planning, engineering, community development and building, the areas that Terry oversaw. The council’s expectations for the position, she said, were “unrealistic.”
The council rejected most of the applicants and that search never resulted in any interviews.
Terry was initially hired as general services director in 2010 to assist then-Mayor Don Stanford. The council gave Terry oversight of the Community Development, Planning and Building departments in 2011 as part of cost-saving measures.
In 2016, Engineering was added to Terry’s oversight responsibilities after former Engineering Director Mark Petersohn was laid off and his position eliminated.
Jackson said he understood the reasons for the changes at the time and Terry did a great job overseeing four departments, but the city has struggled and now it’s time to hire a director to lead each department.
Having one person supervise four departments “is why Decatur is behind Athens, Huntsville and Madison,” Jackson said.
With a population of over 200,000, Huntsville has 15 departments with 14 directors. Two managers run the Planning Department. With about 53,000 people, Madison has 14 directors over 14 departments.
With a population over 27,000, Athens has 13 departments with a director over each. Engineering and Community Development operate as one department and include the planning and zoning functions for Athens.
Bowling said every department “doesn’t need a director.” Instead, he prefers a director, and possibly a deputy director, to provide leadership over the four departments Terry oversaw.
For example, Bowling said, City Engineer Carl Prewitt could manage his department “but occasionally he needs someone to go to for a little direction.”
Four new City Council members began their terms Nov. 2, and Jackson, the only council holdover, is getting support from some of them for his proposal that the Engineering, Planning, Community Development and Building departments each have a director.
“I agree with Billy for the very reason they had a hard time finding someone with experience in all of those areas,” Councilman Carlton McMasters said. “Finding someone for the position as it is designed is like finding a unicorn — it just doesn’t exist.”
Councilman Hunter Pepper said Terry was “amazing” but it’s time for a structural change.
“If we can get somebody special, that’s great,” Pepper said. “But we should look at hiring a director over each department.”
Councilman Kyle Pike likes Bowling’s stance of hiring a director of development and he wants to see if it would work to have a director and deputy director overseeing the four departments. He said he also wants to hear Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin’s ideas.
Council President Jacob Ladner said he’s heard Jackson’s ideas and he would like to hear the ideas of the other councilmen, mayor and directors.
“We just need to stop talking about this and get something done,” Ladner said.