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December 27, 2012

Columbia offers assistant city manager top job

Columbia City Council has offered the top position of city manager to assistant city manager Teresa Wilson.

Columbia City Council has offered the top position of city manager to assistant city manager Teresa Wilson.

Wilson was offered the job during a special meeting Thursday in anticipation of current city manager Steve Gantt’s retirement next year.

An assistant manager for more than a year and a half, Wilson was one of several staff members promoted in 2011 after Gantt reorganized his staff. Wilson was asked to revamp the troubled Community Development department.

That department, once headed by embattled director Tony Lawton, had come under fire earlier in 2011 after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration questioned the city’s handling of millions in federal dollars for low- to moderate-income communities and the Commerce Department cut off all loans to the city.

Lawton was reassigned in the July staff shakeup and no longer works for the city. The Community Development department was placed under Wilson, who worked with the department’s new manager, Deborah Livington.

A Columbia native and University of South Carolina Law School graduate, Wilson, 38, beat out 27 other candidates in a national search. The initial selection was narrowed to a pool of five, which included at least one other in-house candidate, senior assistant city manager Allison Baker.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said it was specifically Wilson’s experience with economic development and governmental affairs that gave her the edge.

“As mayor, it’s the economy, job creation and what are we doing to create jobs here in the Midlands that’s most important. ...Those things matter, and I think that’s what gave her the edge,” he said.

Benjamin also cited Wilson’s role in leading the community development department out of troubled waters as a factor in her consideration for the top post.

“We went from being under fire with HUD and the community development block grant dollars last year to winning the John A. Sasso Award,” he said. That award is presented by the National Community Development Association for creating affordable housing.

The city said Thursday that Benjamin touted a number of Wilson’s other accomplishmentsincluding:

•  Reducing the Commercial Revolving Loan Fund’s default rate from 29 percent to 4 percent.
•  Helping the rebirth of downtown, seeing 22 new businesses locate to Main Street since June 2011.
•  Implementing the Façade Grant program, which leveraged $425,000 in federal community development grant funds to create more than $6 million in private downtown investment.
•  Supplementing vital services like public safety with nearly $60 million dollars in grant funds.

But not everyone was as enthusiastic about moving Wilson into the position.

Council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah voted against offering Wilson the job.

Plaugh read a lengthy list of requirements that were part of the position’s job description, including executive expertise and the candidate’s ability to advise both council and the public on financial, public safety and water and sewer matters.

“The candidate before us is indeed a bright, articulate, gifted and talented individual but is inexperienced in many of those areas ...,” said Plaugh, who herself once held the position until she was fired by City Council after repeated clashes.

Baddourah also cited a lack of experience.

“On paper, there were some other candidates that had a little more experience to be a city manager,” he said. “That said, I’ll do whatever I can to help her be the best city manager she can be.”

Wilson said she looks forward to the opportunity to win over both Baddourah and Plaugh and thinks the city is ready to “think bigger and broader.” The city has room for improvement in the way its departments interact, in the way it interacts with other governments and in the way it interacts with the public.

“What we’ve been challenged with is improving our customer service and making the experience better for someone who is trying to open a business, start a business or who wants to stay here,” she said.

Wilson, who had not had a chance to review the contract including compensation details, which were not made public Thursday, said she anticipates accepting the position.

Gantt, who has been employed with the city since 2001, will serve in an advisory capacity to Wilson for at least six months.

His contract runs out June 2013. If Wilson accepts, City Council is scheduled to approve her hiring at its first meeting next year. She would begin work immediately.

Wilson makes $117,500 now as assistant city manager. Gantt earns $175,000.

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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