Sitting in a row of three before an audience of leaders from various civic organizations, the final candidates for Durham's city manager position answered questions Saturday before moving to individual closed-door interviews with the city council.
Development was the hot topic of the morning, but finalists also faced questions on subjects ranging from nepotism in city government to school overcrowding.
The backgrounds of the three finalists-Marcia Conner, William Hargett and John Rowe-vary. Conner is currently an assistant city manager in Austin, Texas and was city manager of Opa Locka, Fla., a Miami suburb.
Hargett is a former engineer and city manager of Pompano Beach, Fla. Rowe was city manager of Suffolk, Va., for most of the 1980s, and is currently interim city manager of Clifton Forge, Va.
Charles Penny, a graduate of North Carolina Central University, withdrew from consideration Tuesday, citing family concerns.
Several audience members said Conner impressed them. "I really liked Ms. Conner," said Barbara Lau, a research associate at the Center for Documentary Studies who questioned finalists on the role of the arts in community development. "I think she's really had experiences in the trenches."
Milo Pyne, an ecologist and environmental advocate, agreed. "[Conner's] responses were flexible and communicative in a way not exhibited by the other candidates," he said. "Hargett is good, but he focuses more on the nuts and bolts, and I want someone who understands the emotions behind an issue."
But Kennedy Godette, president of the Durham County Young Democrats, favored Hargett. "He seems to be much more pro-development and seems to have more experience than the others," Godette said.
When the discussion turned to development, Hargett cited his involvement as deputy city manager in St. Petersburg with the downtown Tropicana Dome. "When you go into a project, make sure there is a vision and support by the community," he said.
Rowe spoke on the importance of counseling communities on development projects, and he named his work in discussing the relocation of a chemical plant to neighbors of the future plant.
But Conner stated, "It's not the role of the city manager to push development into a neighborhood. The role of the city manager is to get a win-win situation."
In closing statements, Hargett said he would bring a unique experience to Durham. "I think I can be a very powerful force in moving the city forward," he said.
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Rowe, who throughout the session stressed quality of life as a main concern, said, "You have challenges in the way of environment, growth, education. I can help you. I've done those things."
Conner focused on her regional roots. "I'm a Southerner. I'm a Southern girl," the Columbia, S.C. native said. "I would welcome the opportunity to become city manager of Durham and come back to what I consider home."
Council members Brenda Burnette and Erick Larson would not disclose their preferences, but Burnette said she was pleased with the proceedings.
The city council will go into closed session Tuesday morning to discuss the candidates. Council member Dan Hill expects an open session vote to immediately follow.