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Conner's mess

Durham City Manager Marcia Conner's fall from grace is entirely of her own doing. Once again, the Bull City is providing the rest of the Triangle with the kind of spectacle it seems to specialize in--outrageous behavior in City Hall that takes the focus away from the city's accomplishments and opportunities. To people outside of Durham, it produces another of those head-scratching moments that make people ask, "Is it something in the water?" To those who know what a wonderfully warm, diverse, attractive small city Durham is, it's a reminder that all it takes is arrogance on the part of public officials to melt the city's image.

To the uninitiated, here's the story 'til now: Conner was an assistant city manager in Austin, Texas, who replaced the dynamic Lamont Ewell in June 2001. She was a hard-nosed, hard-working, ambitious manager who had made a name for herself in Austin by stepping up and getting projects approved in places like poor neighborhoods that didn't trust City Hall. People there didn't want to let her go.

After her first month on the job, she came up against a giant embarrassment: No one in City Hall was keeping watch over hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans meant to help people start small businesses in poor neighborhoods, but instead went to people who never started the businesses and weren't paying back the money. Then came other problems, mostly involving her efforts to quickly fill top management jobs in City Hall using her professional connections. The worst: A firm Conner selected botched the search for a new police chief.

The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer began sniffing around contracts let without bids to people she'd worked with before. One $30,000 consulting contract went to a former colleague who began work before the contract was even signed. When the Herald-Sun asked her about it, she said she had nothing to do with the hiring. Then she told the City Council otherwise. After she failed to produce a complete list of contracts when asked by the council, the city did an audit and found that none of the 172 contracts she'd handled met all the city's requirements.

Conner followed a pattern that people who work with her in City Hall say is all too consistent: She gets angry, deflects blame and tries to pass it onto others. They're so fed up with her as a boss that a group claming to represent 300 city employees has written council members to complain. People in the press have seen another side of the problem: a contempt for open meetings and public records law that reflects an apparent belief that the people's business is better done in private.

The City Council decided Tuesday to keep her, but to reduce her pay, require her to get management training, and to receive monthly evaluations. That puts off any further decisions about her future. But she can make some. Conner needs to start speaking in a voice that inspires the whole city to listen. And then she needs to listen.

–RICHARD HART

  • Conner's mess

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