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City Council votes to punish Conner

After nearly five hours of deliberation, the Durham City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to retain Marcia Conner as city manager, but with the stipulation of strict disciplinary action.

The most notable condition of the agreement reached by the council and the city manager reduces Conner's annual salary to $138,000--a one-time reduction from her current salary of $144,000. The accord included five other conditions emphasizing increased accountability and professional development.

Council member Howard Clement called the meeting "long and arduous," but said he is confident the measures will be effective in ensuring Conner does her job correctly.

"She agreed to them and it's going to be incumbent on the council that they are adhered to," he said.

Conner's evaluation comes in light of recent revelations regarding her alleged mishandling of city contracts. At Monday's council meeting, an internal audit revealed none of 132 city contracts sampled met all the requirements outlined in the city policy.

The agreement reached Tuesday removed Conner's power to authorize contracts. All categories of contracts must now receive council approval before she is authorized to sign them.

Tuesday's meeting looked at all aspects of Conner's job performance, however.

"[It wasn't] solely devoted to contracts," Clement said. "There were other issues that we ironed out and discussed--handling of agendas, handling of the budget, things like that."

Conner's management of the city's recent troubled police chief search was not specifically discussed, he said.

Council member Thomas Stith defended the decision to trim Conner's salary as a necessary disciplinary action. "When you look at holding someone accountable, compensation is one of those things that you can utilize when addressing performance," he said.

In addition to the salary cut, Conner will have to undergo monthly performance evaluations by the City Council and must seek "further professional development to enhance [her] overall management skills." Within the next 60 days, she must conduct a performance evaluation of city employees who report directly to her. The manager's existing work plan includes an annual evaluation, which will be carried out as planned.

"This will provide us with the necessary tools for corrective action in relation to what we found in reviewing the manager's performance," Stith said.

But to council member John Best, corrective action did not represent the optimal solution. Best, the sole council member who voted against the agreement to retain Conner, said he would have favored replacing her with a new city manager.

"Personally I feel we need change at the top of our administration," he said. "I think we deserve a manager that can be straightforward and honest... someone with a little more experience at handling a city like Durham."

However, Best was quick to stress he stands behind the City Council's decision and will support Conner as city manager.

"The majority has spoken," he said. "Let's move on and get back to the day-to-day activities of making Durham an even better place to live."

Looking forward, Mayor Bill Bell, who also voted to punish Conner, said he thought businesses would have greater assurances from the city for future contracts and that the process would be revised so that contracts would now fall in line with the city's financial policies.

"That's a part of the audit review that was done," Bell said. "I expect the recommendations to come back from the audit services as to how the process will be revised."

Kevin Lees contributed to this story.

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