New city manager Payne promises hands-on approach
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
What are residents going to see now that Darlington City Council has hired John Payne, a Florence financial adviser, as its first new city manager in 11 years? “They will see more financial accountability, and they’ll see a city manager that is engaged with the citizens and the local leaders,” Payne told the News & Press in an interview shortly after council voted 5-2 on July 20 to hire him for the job. “And they’re going to see me more in the public,” Payne added. “I’m not one that’s going to just sit in City Hall. I will be out and about amongst the citizens. Because I need to hear from them what they’re happy with and where they think there needs to be improvement.” “I believe the city needs to know its true financial position,” Payne said. “I believe that the employees need to be heard. … I look forward to working with council to learn their goals and to implement their policies.” “One of the first things I’m going to do is get to know these council members personally,” he said. “Then I’m going to go around and I’m going to meet every one of the employees. … I’m going to sit down with my department heads. I’m going to ask them to give me a report on their challenges and accomplishments over the past two years, and I want to know what they see going forward for the next two and five years.” After a nearly four-month search for a new city manager to succeed Howard Garland, whose contract was not renewed by council, Payne – a onetime aide to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond – was hired for the job after council narrowed the search to two finalists, Payne and Dennis Sparks of Virginia. Both Payne and Sparks returned to the council’s chambers last week for a final round of interviews with council members. But unlike previous interviews with city manager candidates, these were conducted in public, not in executive session. After re-interviewing Payne and Sparks, council went into executive session for 45 minutes, then emerged and voted. In the 5-2 vote, council members Elaine Reed and Sheila Baccus opposed hiring Payne, though they offered no public explanation. Payne told the News & Press that the lack of a unanimous “yes” vote didn’t worry him. “I will make a concerted effort to reach out to each one of these council members,” Payne said. “I want to get to know each one and I mean that.” In the case of the dissenting council members, he said, “I will make a double effort to get into their community. I want them to go with me. And I want them to introduce me to the people in their community. …” After the vote, Reed told the News & Press that she and Baccus have nothing against Payne; they simply felt that Sparks, who had managed several cities across the country, mostly in a “crisis management” sort of role, was the most qualified. Payne, by contrast, will be going into his first job as a city manager. “I kept saying, ‘It’s nothing against Payne,’” Reed said. “Payne is fine. I’m going to work with him.” Reed said Payne’s Pee Dee roots probably swayed council. When council members re-interviewed Payne last week, he offered some frank assessments of the problems Darlington faces. “When I grew up here a long time ago, in the ’80s, this was a very nice little town. It was a great place to raise a family, and I enjoyed it. That why I’m back now.” But he said that Darlington must deal with its infrastructure problems, financial problems and “personnel problems that need to be satisfied.” He said he wants to help “rebuild” the city and deal with issues such as Darlington’s shrinking population. “My primary focus is really to right the ship, if you will,” Payne told council last week. “ … If Darlington doesn’t get ahold of these issues, it’ll continue to crumble. And at some point in 10 years or so, you’re going to find a Darlington that you probably don’t want to see.” Mayor Curtis Boyd acknowledged the city’s issues, but told Payne, “We’re not crumbling.” Boyd told Payne that in the past, “favors” have been done for various people on various issues – favors that tended to undermine the city’s policies and regulations. Payne said he would do no one any such favors. He also assured council he would not use the city manager’s job to build his resume, then exit fairly soon: “I’m not going to work here for a year or two, then leave.” This will be Payne’s first tenure as a city manager. He’s currently a financial adviser for Edward Jones Investments in Sumter. Before that, he was controller for Ramsul LLC of Florence, finance manager for Beaufort Memorial Hospital, a staff accountant with a Beaufort certified public accounting firm, an administrator for Beaufort County Council, and an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond from 1991-99. “About half my career is in government,” Payne said. After the vote to hire him, Payne said, “I’m excited. We’re going to build a home here next year, and I’m looking forward to working in the community in which I grew up.” His contract remained to be worked out, so a date for him to begin work had not been set. Payne’s salary apparently had not been finalized.