Is Kingsport BMA ‘divided’ or ‘diverse?’

Matthew Lane • Jul 14, 2013 at 12:01 AM

KINGSPORT — Is the Board of Mayor and Aldermen a divided board? Is it too involved in the operation of Kingsport’s government? Is City Manager John Campbell being micro-managed?

Depends on whom you ask.

“I have a real concern about the direction of this board and our leadership,” Alderman Tom Parham said at the end of the BMA’s regular meeting Tuesday night. “We have a divided board and no doubt we need to close (the division). Our situation needs to be improved.”

Parham continued by saying the BMA has been “micro-managing” the city manager and not following the city charter when it comes to the role of the BMA, “starting with the mayor” and permeating out to the other members of the BMA, including himself.

“Our job is around strategy, policy and direction and the CEO of this business is John Campbell; he and his staff are supposed to be insulated from politics,” Parham said. “We have to identify and understand our role, do our job and move forward.”

Parham concluded by saying the city has morale problems from some of the actions taken by the BMA, and in a follow-up interview with the Times-News, Parham elaborated on his comment.

“We have some serious morale problems within the staff and not just one or two people. It’s throughout the staff,” Parham said. “We need to find a better way of doing it; not managing through intimidation or publicly criticizing the staff.”

Mayor Dennis Phillips said he thinks he is as close as anyone to the city’s employees, and other than one department, he has not heard of any morale issues at all. Vice Mayor Mike McIntire said there are always rumors about low morale, but overall he feels morale among city employees is “pretty solid.”

In a bit of foreshadowing of Tuesday’s comments by Parham, Alderman John Clark, at the end of the BMA work session Monday evening, suggested the BMA hold a meeting to discuss the ways it should manage the city’s business as a board and in line with the city’s charter.

The idea informally agreed on by the BMA this week is to hold a visioning session, possibly in September, to help guide the Model City’s growth over the next five to 10 years. The last major visioning process took place in 1999.

“We have focused a great deal on the operations. If you read the charter, we also have the responsibility for policy making, strategy and a vision for the city,” Clark said. “I believe we need to find a way to spend more time on the other things to truly fulfill the role of the BMA.”

However, Clark does not believe the board is divided nor does he agree with the term “micro-managed.”

“I tend to think more in terms of diversity rather than a divided board,” Clark said, noting he would like to see the BMA become more efficient. “We need to find the right balance between providing oversight on the operations and focus on the vision for the city.

“That’s the challenge for the board and I think we need to come together as a board and have this discussion.”

Alderman Jantry Shupe said he agrees with Parham and wishes the BMA was closer together than it is now.

“I do feel strongly that there is a difference in direction and focus from the mayor’s leadership and from other board members,” Shupe said. “Leadership goes from the top down and it’s been a concern of people in much higher positions than myself.”

McIntire said the argument of whether the BMA is micro-managing the city manager is all in the eye of the beholder.

“I think most of us are a little strong willed about things. Each of us in their own way tries to get things done, and when we ask about something and it doesn’t happen as quick as we like, we’ll probably ask again,” McIntire said. “Dennis may be more outspoken than other members, but we all ask and push certain things we’re interested in, done in different styles and in different ways.”

McIntire continued by saying he too does not see the BMA as divided.

“I think there’s some difference of opinion, but you always want to have some of that,” McIntire said. “If you look at the voting, we generally vote fairly close to unanimous. If we all agreed, you wouldn’t need the seven of us.”

Phillips believes some of the tension among board members relates back to the Ben Mallicote/Tony Shipley race last year and who sided with whom in that tightly contested primary battle.

“I think it’s divided certain people,” Phillips said. “When the election is over, it’s over. You need to start healing or you’ll have a long, tough road ahead. Somehow, we have to put (that election) behind us, and I’m not sure that’s happened yet.”

Phillips said he does not feel he or the BMA micro-manages the city manager and if it is taking place, Campbell has not expressed that sentiment to him.

“The BMA’s job is to direct the city manager, and what do you do when the city manager does not follow wishes of the board?” Phillips said, though admitting government can be slower than the private sector. “Our job is to see the city manager carry out the wishes of the board, and I think in most cases he does a fairly good job of that. ... But at times there are things he drags out longer than they should.”

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