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August 2007
Looking Forward...
By Ellison Clary

     It’s his dream job, Charlotte’s new city manager says, adding that he’s learned his craft from the best. He can click off major issues and share ideas about how to address them, but he strongly feels he should take direction from the city council and the mayor.

      Don’t expect a big change in the way city hall operates, Curt Walton adds, because he’s a huge fan of how predecessor Pam Syfert steered the city for 20 years.

     “Pam is the best city manager in the United States,” Walton says emphatically of his former boss, who retired in June. “There’s not going to be a great difference from her management style to mine.”

      Syfert was inclusive and collaborative and worked for consensus, Walton says, adding that he hopes he’ll be regarded the same way. Maybe he’ll move a little faster, he allows.

      “If there’s one difference, it’s that Pam is probably a little more patient than I am,” he smiles. “I truly want to hear from people, get all the different perspectives, but I do like to hear it pretty quick. There will be a little bit quicker decision-making process. But I don’t know that that’s a strength.”

     Walton is self-deprecating, with wit and a sense of humor. He’s also thoughtful.

     “I can’t really say I came here in 1986 thinking ‘I want to be city manager,’” he reflects as he leans back, arms spread wide, in his office overlooking the city from the city-county government building. “But given the point that I am in my career and the unfortunate opportunity of Pam’s retirement, the city manager position just seemed like the right thing to do. So in that sense, I’m probably in my dream job.”

     At 49, does he plan to hold the position until he retires? “I would hope so,” he says. “I have no interest in leaving Charlotte. And that would have been the case whether or not I had gotten the job, because this is home.”

     Charlotte City Council picked Walton over two other home-grown candidates, Ron Kimble and Keith Parker who, like Walton, were assistant city managers for the Queen City. For Walton, it’s the latest step in a career that has always felt natural and has been highlighted by some serendipitous events.

 

Growing Into the Job

       The son of two educators, Walton was born in Salisbury but grew up in Carthage, where his father retired as assistant superintendent of the Moore County schools. His older sister also is a teacher, so he was familiar with public service.

      Walton was drawn to municipal government work. “There was just something about cities that I found really intriguing,” he says. “I think it’s because they are closest to their constituents. I like to get people’s perspectives on what the issues are, what the problems and solutions are.”

      He finished the University of North Carolina in 1982 with a bachelor’s in political science and psychology and immediately enrolled in The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It was one of only a few schools that offered a master’s in urban administration, concentrating on local government.

      By the time he completed that program in summer 1980, Walton had worked in the City of Charlotte’s Utilities Department while writing his thesis on public finance. He took a full-time job in utilities and then, in 1982, went to the Town of Wake Forest to be assistant town administrator. He fondly remembers the tutelage of veteran town manager Jerry Walters, now town manager for Oak Island.

      Then, in 1986, a fortuitous coincidence happened. Walton was passing time during a brief layover in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport when he bought The Charlotte Observer. He saw a city budget analyst position advertised and applied for it. A few months later, he was working for Vi Alexander Liles, who was assistant budget director. As budget director, Syfert was her boss.

      “I really enjoyed living here,” he recalls. “There was just an energy about Charlotte. For some reason, I can’t put my finger on it, Charlotte felt like home.”

      Soon, he enjoyed another happy coincidence. He bumped into a childhood friend who invited him to her 30th  birthday party. Also there was Clare Vickers, who’d moved next door to his friend that day. That was in March and Curt and Clare, a native Charlottean and school teacher, were married by the end of 1987. Today, their only child, Hannah, is an incoming freshman at Appalachian State University.

 

Budgeting Issues

       Working in the city budget department for 16 years—he was budget director from 1996 until 2002—Walton found a creative outlet. “People kind of scrunch their face up when you tell them you work in budget,” he grins. “They think that would be the most  boring thing to do. But it’s not.”

      Rather than a bookkeeping perspective, Charlotte approaches budgeting by making dollars match council priorities, Walton explains. “It is much more creative, flexible and innovative than people would think. I got to work closely with a number of city departments, police and solid waste particularly,” he adds. “You really learn the ins and outs of those departments.”

      Since 2002, he’s been an assistant city manager, learning about all the departments and honing his management style under Syfert. He sets out his view of the city manager’s position clearly.

      “But for the mayor and the city council, the city manager doesn’t have any direction,” he says. “But for the city employees, 6,600 folks, nothing happens. I’m the conduit in between. To me, it’s not a function of power; it’s a function of facilitation and making sure we all get the best out of each other.”

      When the conversation moves to critical issues, transit is top of mind for Walton. In November, voters will decide whether to repeal the half-cent local sales tax that finances light rail construction and improvements to the municipal bus service. Walton says his biggest hope is that those who oppose the tax and those who support it will present accurate information to the public.

      He personally believes in the long-range plan that includes five mass transit corridors, some served by light rail. “Finishing that plan is going to be very important to the sustainability of Charlotte,” he says.

      He calls attention to a 25-year transportation plan that deals with more traditional needs such as roads and intersections. “We’ve funded the first five years of that,” he says. “We need to make sure we keep up with that plan.”

      Another reason addressing transportation is critical is that Charlotte is falling farther behind ever-more-stringent air quality standards, even as the air gets cleaner. “We could have a development moratorium put on us just because the air’s not clean enough,” he warns.

      Growth itself is an issue, he adds, with the ideal being a sustainable pace that improves the quality of life. He sees paying for growth as important, too.The property tax “is about all we have,” he says as he acknowledges that alternatives such as impact fees or land transfer taxes are worth consideration.

      He also believes that fighting crime and helping people feel safe are vitally important. Police involvement at the neighborhood level is a big plus, he says, but officers need to communicate better with citizens.

 

Finding the Middle Ground

 

      A self-described morning person, Walton hits the office as early as 6:45 a.m. He’s done by 5:30 p.m. unless there’s an evening meeting, which is often the case. Yet he makes time for family, remembering the lesson he learned when he missed Hannah’s first birthday party. He likes yard work and watching sports, particularly professional football and basketball.

      Walton lists several aspects of Charlotte that he finds remarkable, starting with the city’s button-down culture. “It’s hard to imagine a city being quite as corporate as Charlotte is,” he says, quickly adding that’s not a criticism. He praises the success of Bank of America and Wachovia, huge molders of that corporate image, as well as their ability to attract a host of additional employers who support them.

      He’s impressed with the city’s neighborhoods, pointing out there are more than 500. “There’s a community fabric that’s different from neighborhood to neighborhood,” he says. “It’s not in any way a homogenized city that I get a feel for in some other places.”

     Generosity is another Charlotte attribute, he says, citing continued success of fund drives for the United Way of Central Carolinas and the Arts & Science Council. “In some cases, we actually contribute greater real dollars than some much bigger cities,” he says. “I think that’s exceptional.”

    And then there are the differences of opinion that Charlotteans seem to treasure. For instance, how the city and county should improve the public schools is a question with answers from across an incredibly wide spectrum. “I use schools as an example,” he says. “They’re in no way an aberration.There is a constituency group, a constituency opinion and position for everything.”

     Yet, he adds, Charlotte has a history of finding a middle ground on most issues. Perhaps that’s why he’s observed that, regardless of changes in control between Republicans and Democrats, city council doesn’t produce a sea change in local government direction.

     That’s good, he believes. “We don’t want to be whip-sawing the community back and forth.”

      With 650,000 city residents and 850,000 county-wide, Charlotte is arguably the size of Austin, the Texas city where the Chamber of Commerce recently took its annual fact-finding trip. Walton praises Austin as a well-run city with a solid management history. Phoenix has long been a leader in municipal management and San Diego is a model for handling growth issues, he says, as he names municipalities he admires.

     While he defers external goals to council, Walton wants the city to concentrate on providing citizen services the way the “customers” want them. He realizes communication is critical. The Web will be increasingly important, he predicts, as will the 311 information telephone line.

     Walton places high value on a citizen being able to speak with a live person—one with enough information at his or her fingertips to truly help. That requires a city services system that is much more integrated across department lines, something he promises to work on.

    The new city manager prizes what he calls an open and ethical organization and says he wants to build confidence that the city is doing things the right way. Finally, he praises the city’s pristine financial rating—Triple A—which is the highest. “To maintain that is always going to be paramount,” he says.

    He infuses humor with his overall aspiration for his city.

    “I wish Charlotte had the best quality of life in the free world—and France,” he says with a smile. “And I don’t know that we don’t have it. For me, it’s a great place and I don’t know any other place I want to live.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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