Allegations that the county economic development office is in disarray because it can't seem to keep a director longer than TC few months are "100 percent wrong," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.
"The chief economic development person is me," Mr. Ecker said. "When Dyan [Brasington] was here, I did it, and when Bill Howard was here, I did it."
Ms. Brasington resigned after little more than a year in the job to become economic director for the state of West Virginia. Her successor, William H. Howard Jr., stayed nine months before resigning last week to pursue other interests.
County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said the rapid departure of Ms. Brasington and Mr. Howard are signs that the county economic development department is in a shambles.
"This is a Rolls Royce county, but we can't seem to find a driver for more than six months," Mr. Gray said.
More evidence of disarray, Mr. Gray said, is the administration's continual tinkering with economic development. When Ms. Brasington arrived, it was a four-person office. During her brief tenure, other agencies were put under her control and the office was upgraded to a department. When she left, one of those agencies was returned to its former place in county government.
Shortly afterward, the county asked for and received permission from the legislature to convert the economic development department to an economic development authority, directed by a citizen board and partially funded with private money.
Mr. Ecker appointed the nine-member authority in July, but it cannot supplant the county economic development department until the County Council confirms all nine appointees. The council has confirmed only seven. The other two are expected to be confirmed Oct. 4.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker plans to meet this morning with some of his July appointees to begin preparing for the change from a department to an authority. Today's agenda will include discussion of the amount of staff needed to run the authority, as well as their salaries and benefits.
"We've got to get cracking on policies and procedures, the number of employees on the payroll and how we will handle health insurance," Mr. Ecker said. Proposed bylaws may also be discussed as well as the search for a new director, Mr. Ecker said.
Richard H. Pettingill, former president of the county Chamber of Commerce and one of Mr. Ecker's appointees to the newly formed Economic Development Authority, said it is ironic that the county's approach to economic development is being criticized.
"Twelve months ago people were saying we were at the top of the heap," he said. "That opportunity is still there."
Chamber of Commerce President William Munn agrees. "If the product is in demand, it's hard to say that the [economic development department] is in chaos," he said. "Some real positive things have happened."
The departures of directors -- Frank Collins, Eric Feldman and Barry Bogage in the M. Elizabeth Bobo administration; Ms. Brasington and Mr. Howard under Mr. Ecker -- are not signs of weakness, but of strength, Mr. Munn believes. "Most people made upward moves," he said. "A short-term person who hits a couple of home runs is not all that bad."
"If I had my druthers, I would prefer more longevity, but we are not failing if we don't have it," Mr. Ecker said. "Dyan did a wonderful job in a short time, and Bill did a good job" in a short time.
Critics say the fact that the county has one of the smallest economic development staffs in the region and spends about a third or less than its leading competitors indicates a lack of commitment to economic development.
Mr. Munn sees things differently. It would have been difficult for the executive to double or triple the amount the county spends on economic development while cutting other areas of the budget and laying off employees, Mr. Munn said.
Mr. Ecker was also criticized by Mr. Gray for saying he would not advertise for a new director, but would instead review the 400 applications received during the search that led to Mr. Howard's appointment in November.
Chamber president Munn was again supportive. "The last search was pretty extensive," he said. "There were a lot of qualified candidates."