By Callie Hietala
When Dale Wagoner becomes the next Henry County Administrator, he will be another in a succession of white men who have held the job.
Wagoner, like other county administrators before him, was appointed internally to the position and without a public application process. He will take over the position later this year, following the retirement of current County Administrator Tim Hall effective July 1. Hall has served in his current role since 2012.
At its March 22 meeting, the Henry County Board of Supervisors heard from Joyce Staples, a resident of the Blackberry District, who said she spoke on behalf of “leaders and concerned citizens in the African American community” and challenged the county on its selection and appointment process for those in leadership roles.
Staples began her presentation by clarifying that her words were “not meant as a personal attack on any individual” but rather “intended to put a spotlight on an inequitable and unjust structure currently in operation within Henry County,” in the spirit of continuing to evolve and grow as a community.
“We want to convey our disappointment, not with the appointment of Mr. Wagoner, but with the process that led to the appointment,” she said, and added, “there is a certain reputational risk associated with me speaking this evening, but because we strongly believe the process is flawed, we say enough is enough and choose to speak out.”
She said that, in the last 20 years, the county administrator position has been open on three different occasions. “Each time, it has been filled from within the organization, by a white male with no announcements, job postings, or a single advertisement.”
While “leadership would argue they chose the best man for the job on each occasion, and that may be true, with such a closed and secret process, how can they possibly know they hired the best person for the job,” Staples asked. “Why not validate the selection process that considers applicants from outside the inner circle, including individuals with experiences from other areas, other cultures, and possibly consider someone with a different ethnicity or gender? This is our moment to be more transparent.”
Staples said the nation is “in the midst of a national reckoning. At last, people have recognized that diversity of background begets diversity of thought, which makes for more dynamic, and fruitful organizations.”
She said that studies indicated that diverse teams are 87 percent better at making decisions, diverse management teams lead to 19 percent higher revenues, and gender diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to see higher financial returns.
“As Americans, this is our moment to embrace the changes around us and to build a more inclusive environment for ourselves and our children,” Staples said. “We cannot simply abide by the status quo and allow these entrenched bias practices to continue. We have to face these hard truths about our own unconscious bias practices to continue. We have to face these hard truths about our own unconscious biases and actively work against the desire to lean into what’s comfortable instead of doing what’s right.”
Hall said that while the Board of Supervisors hires the county administrator and county attorney, the Deputy County Administrator is traditionally hired by the county administrator without direct input from the board. “However,” he said, “there is dialogue with the board as the process plays out.”
He said that the last two deputy administrators (Hall and Wagoner) came from within the organization. Hall was promoted to the deputy position in 2002, when then-County Administrator Sid Clower was caught in an embezzling scheme and fired. Clower was originally hired from outside the organization to manage the Public Service Authority (PSA), and then was later tapped by the supervisors to take on the dual roles.
Then-Deputy County Administrator Benny Summerlin was promoted to Clower’s position. Hall took over as administrator after Summerlin’s death in 2012.
“I think it was a very tumultuous time for everyone in county government, given the circumstances under which the previous administrator left,” Hall said. “I don’t know if Benny considered advertising the deputy position at that time; all I know is he asked me to step up and I did so.”
Hall said as administrator, “I thought it was essential to hire from within because one, we had a great candidate in Dale Wagoner, and two, the psyche of our employees was in disarray because we’d all seen one of our best friends, and our leader, pass away.”
However, he noted, “I removed myself from any part of the decision to hire (Wagoner) as county administrator and the decision to advertise internally for the … position. I won’t be here for what comes next and I shouldn’t stick my nose where it didn’t belong.”
In his view, Hall said “hiring from within is the best way to go, if possible. If the county administrator has done his or her job well, then there will be people within the organization who are capable of advancing. If there are qualified internal candidates, and the decision is made to go outside the organization, then those internal candidates will feel their work to improve their skills and knowledge was wasted, and we run the risk of that employee going elsewhere.”
Hall said the county’s administration emphasizes “succession plans within our departments for seamless transitions and continuity of service. But if there is a position without a candidate-in-waiting, we advertise externally and we have filled department head positions externally in the past.”
Currently, the county does not have any people of color serving as department heads, nor does the county “have enough people of color in our organization. We want and need more of them. But so do all other local governments, especially those in rural areas of the Commonwealth,” Hall said.
Wagoner agreed that there is “considerable value in succession planning to ensure uninterrupted delivery of service to our citizens,” though “there are also situations and opportunities when hiring from outside the organization is desired.”
For many years, he said the county “has struggled with recruiting for positions at all levels of the organization. Employees are often expected to handle many responsibilities that transcend traditional departmental silos. Finding individuals who can fill positions with various skills and assorted knowledge for the jobs are usually those who have gained the knowledge from working for the organization.”
Ultimately, Wagoner said the county “can do a better job addressing diversity and inclusion, and I look forward to having those discussions with the Board of Supervisors as we continue to make our community a great place to live, work, learn, and play.”
Jim Adams, chairman of the board of supervisors, said that the board listens to all comments during matters presented by the public and the information shared during that time “gives the board a basis for future consideration in matters of projects or policy.”