Ralph Clark is planning to call them as he sees them when he becomes the Elizabeth City’s interim city manager Monday.
“I have no fear,” Clark said, referring to City Council. “The worst thing that they can do is send me home and I can go back to playing golf again.”
Clark, who served as city manager from 1991 to 1995, will replace Public Safety Director Eddie Buffaloe, who was named acting city manager on Aug. 23 after City Council put former manager Montre Freeman on paid leave. City Council terminated Freeman without cause on Sept. 30.
Buffaloe has since been nominated by Gov. Roy Cooper to serve as the new secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Buffaloe’s last day with the city is Oct. 31.
Clark, who lives in New Bern, will be paid $75 an hour, receive lodging at a city bed and breakfast, and be given $18 per day to spend on dinner. He said he plans on working four days a week, likely Monday through Thursday.
Clark said permanent city managers often have to hold back on what they say to their governing board out of fear for their job. But he said that won’t be the case when he assumes the position.
“You are able to express yourself a little more freely than you actually can when you are making a living doing it,” Clark said. “Sometimes things need to be said that a manager doing it for a living, that has a family to feed, wouldn’t say for the fear of losing the job.”
City Council selected Clark from among several different interim manager candidates on a 4-3 vote Monday. Councilors Billy Caudle, Jeannie Young, Michael Brooks and Chris Ruffieux all voted to hire Clark. Councilors Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton and Kem Spence voted against the move.
Only seven councilors voted because of Second Ward Councilman Gabriel Adkins’ resignation from council on Oct. 4.
That split vote came after City Council held a spirited discussion about past meetings leading up to Freeman’s dismissal.
While that discussion was taking place Monday night, Clark entered the back door of council chambers and asked when he was going to be interviewed for the interim position.
“It was late and I said, ‘Look, folks, I got two hours (drive) to get home,’” Clark said.
Clark said the discord among City Council didn’t “start with this council” but it is something that has to be fixed. He said his goal is to create unity among elected officials.
“I got just a little whiff of the division the other night,’’ Clark said. “It’s something that I expressed to them that had to be corrected if they expect to move forward. How it happens, I don’t know. Hopefully, I can say some things that a (permanent) manager couldn’t say so they can see their divisions.”
Clark said one of his proudest accomplishments as Elizabeth City’s city manager during his previous tenure was stopping City Council from transferring money from fund balance to balance the city budget.
“That was the worst thing I had to deal with,” Clark said. “You can’t do that. As an example, if you take out of your savings account every month, eventually it is going to go dry. They were not putting anything into the savings account, they were taking out of it.”
When Clark left Elizabeth City for the manager’s position in Clayton, it was his third stint in the town. When asked by city councilors here why he was returning to Clayton, Clark said he told them, “I thought the grass was greener.”
Clark said Clayton had grown from around 1,600 people the first time he was there to around 6,000 the second time and then to around 10,000 when he went back in 1995.
Pasquotank Board of Commissioners Chairman Lloyd Griffin was serving on City Council while Clark was city manager. He said Tuesday he’s “glad” Clark is returning as interim manager.
“When he was here, Ralph Clark identified areas of problems, concerns and put in place corrective actions,” Griffin said. “Clark has been around and hopefully he can identify problems and come up with some solutions.”
Elizabeth City will be Clark’s sixth assignment as an interim manager in the past several years. Clark’s other stops as a permanent manager also include Roxboro and Kinston.
Clark anticipates the search for a permanent city manager will take between four and six months.
“These search firms can do it pretty quickly,” Clark said.
Clark retired from public administration in 2007 and then spent several years working for an engineering firm. Clark then asked the N.C. League of Municipalities to be put in a pool of former managers that would be willing to take on interim roles.
“I wasn’t ready to quit work,” Clark said.
Since then, Clark has had interim manager roles in Ahoskie, Morehead City, Wallace and Rose Hill. He is just coming off a stint as the interim town manager in Apex.
“They have been really neat, and it’s a great feeling to go in someplace and use your experience to do some things,” Clark said. “It’s been a rewarding situation and I continue to do it.’’