April 23, 2009
|Reign Of Fox Made Official|
These days surprises from the Guilford County Board of Commissioners are the rule rather than the exception, so no one should have been shocked when, on Thursday, April 16, the board made interim Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox the new county manager. One interesting thing is that Board of Commissioners Chairman Skip Alston was a leading force in making Fox county manager – even though twice over the years he's been a leading force in getting her fired from the county. Another interesting thing is that, before the board met at 4 p.m. in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House – ostensibly to narrow the county manager search down from six finalists to three – no one had publicly mentioned Fox as a candidate and she wasn't an applicant for the job.
But that didn't keep Fox from landing the job and, when the Board of Commissioners came out of a closed session at about 5:30 p.m., commissioners were congratulating Fox in front of the media. The actual vote to make Fox the county manager took place just before 6 p.m. at the regular meeting in the commissioners meeting room on the second floor of the old courthouse. Fox got the job on an impressive 10-to-1 vote with the only dissenting vote coming from Commissioner Paul Gibson.
Gibson said that, while he thought Fox had the technical prowess necessary to run the county, in his opinion she lacked the people skills necessary to run a county with nearly 2,700 employees.
Gibson used the number 2,700, but, recently, that number has been shrinking as county commissioners and Fox have been making radical changes designed to save the county money. The way the commissioners tell it, those changes largely instigated by Fox over the past several months have convinced them Fox is the right person for the county manager's job.
Four months ago, the idea of Fox ending up as county manager seemed very far-fetched: There were likely not anywhere near six votes to do it; several commissioners had major reservations when it came to Fox; Alston told her explicitly that, if she took the job as interim county manager, she couldn't apply for the job of county manager because she would have an unfair "inside track"; and Fox stated publicly that she had no interest in the job.
Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Steve Arnold, who is Fox's longtime friend and political ally, said it was Fox's actions over the last several months that had won her the near unanimous support of the board.
"Four months ago, the votes would not have been there to do this," Arnold said.
Arnold said the county commissioners have been very impressed with the way Fox has managed the county in a time of crisis, and he added that she's proven herself to be a highly effective leader when it comes to finding efficiencies in county government.
Since Thursday, Dec. 11, when Fox was made interim county manager after a coalition of six commissioners forced the resignation of former Guilford County Manager David McNeill, Fox has met constantly with department heads, county staff and commissioners to find ways to cut spending and, so far, two "reductions in force," or RIFs, have resulted in over $4 million in salaries being cut from the county's payroll. Fox and the county commissioners have also delayed costs by putting off selling bonds, which is how the county raises money, and have reduced county spending by eliminating non-critical county services and cutting corners wherever possible.
Alston said he began thinking about making Fox county manager on Thursday, April 9, after viewing the videotaped interviews of the finalists for the job. He said there was a feeling among many commissioners, after seeing all the tapes, that Fox was the best candidate – even though she wasn't officially in the running.
But Gibson said he suspects this was something Alston and Arnold had planned all along.
"This was a done deal in December," Gibson said on April 19.
Gibson has been on the outside looking in when it comes to county government ever since Monday, Dec. 1 of last year, when the coalition of six commissioners took control of the board and made Alston chairman and Arnold vice chairman. In the following weeks, the coalition proceeded to force McNeill to retire and force Deputy County Manager Ben Brown and County Attorney Sharron Kurtz to resign.
In addition to Alston, a Democrat, and Arnold, a Republican, the coalition consists of Democratic Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Bruce Davis and Kirk Perkins and Republican Commissioner Linda Shaw.
Since Dec. 1, those six commissioners have done pretty much whatever they wanted, and the coalition has not only held together well but has also gained support from other commissioners in many cases – as the 10-to-1 vote to put Fox in the county manager job demonstrates.
Fox came to the county in 1971, and in 1973 she was made the assistant director of the Guilford County Finance Department. She held that job until April 1990, when she was made finance director.
This is not Fox's first turn as Guilford County manager. When a Republican Board of Commissioners was in power in 1991, Arnold led a movement to make her the county manager but, after the Democrats regained power, the board voted to fire her in 1993, at which time she returned to her position as Guilford County finance director. Two years later Fox was fired by a Democratic board from her job as finance director but, after a hiatus of about a year, she was reinstated to that post. Both times Alston voted to fire her. When she was fired as finance director she sued and was only reinstated because Republicans won a majority on the board again. That history is what makes it so amazing now that Alston would make Fox county manager.
At the April 16 meeting, Alston joked about the times over the years that he's voted to fire Fox. But these days Alston has done a 180 with regard to Fox. At the April 16 commissioners meeting he called her a "godsend" and told her, "You're doing an excellent job."
Fox said that all along she's been willing to help the board run the county in whatever capacity it chose for her.
"Whatever is the will of the board," Fox said.