Durham’s months-long search for a new city manager came to a close last week when the city council named Tom Bonfield, the manager of Pensacola, Fla., as a successor to Patrick Baker. Bonfield is expected to start work no later than Sept. 1, at a salary of $178,000. His hire came after council members failed to rally around three other candidatesGeorge Kolb, Randy Oliver and Pat Salernoeach of whom resigned from his previous position after conflicts with his former bosses. The Bonfield decision came as a surprise: Durham officials had not publicly named the 10-year Pensacola manager as a finalist, as they had with the other candidates, because Bonfield did not want to alert his current employer. Bonfield also missed the council meeting where candidates answered questions from citizens. The Independent spoke to him about his reasons for coming to the Bull City.
It was really a great opportunity. The RTP area has always been a real prized location for city managers and county officials in our business as a great place to work. When Durham first popped up, I was kind of interested. I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to pursue. As I got to know the community and what was going on downtown, and quite frankly when I had a chance to meet the city council and the mayor and saw what was happening and what they wanted to have happen, I just said this is something I want to be a part of.
You mentioned downtown Durham. Some critics allege that the city council focuses on downtown development to the exclusion of urban neighborhoods. How would you balance the city’s priorities?
Durham has recognized that downtown is a big part of the image of the community. So much is judged by what is happening downtown. The trends across the country in terms of lifestyle are going to contribute to that happening. But you can’t do that to the detriment of other neighborhoods. Northeast Central Durham has some major detriments. What I see needs a lot of will and a lot of resources. You have to try to increase the overall number of resources.
The city council is in the middle of working through the 2008-09 budget. You’ve mentioned to the press that you have flipped through Patrick Baker’s budget proposal. Any comment on what expenditures you would cut or increase?
I have not looked as closely at the proposed budget from that perspective. I just don’t have enough background. I did look at some of the city financial issues and projections.
What do you think about the city’s overall financial health?
I think clearly there are some potential challenges. If you look at some of the five-year projections, the city is going to need to develop a strategic financial plan to provide the services and do things many in the community want to see happen. How all that will shake out, it’s too soon to tell, but I think it’s important to not just look at a one-year budget or a three- or four-year budget plan.
Is this the approach you have taken in Pensacola?
In the last four or five years, the dynamics in Florida, with state-mandated and citizen-initiated tax reductions, have caused us to have to look out a little further so we aren’t making decisions that are just completing a year’s work, but trying to understand the long-term implications of budget and financial decisions. Just recently, the council implemented a 30-month budget.
During the public comment on the manager’s proposed budget, dozens of citizens representing arts groups complained about cuts in arts funding. Some have said the city lacks a long-term strategy to develop arts and culture. How have you worked to develop the arts in Pensacola?
Whether it’s arts and culture or the human service agenciesany of the nonprofit groupsthose are not unusual kind of budgetary complaints or concerns. You would only expect those organizations to lobby heavily. One thing we have in Pensacola is a comprehensive arts organization that is kind of a partnership to guide the overall development. We have something very similar on the human services side.
An editorial in your hometown paper praised your management skills but characterized your departure as an opportunity to find a manager more willing to push the council toward innovative ideas. How do you respond?
When I interviewed with the city council, one of the council members asked me what I’d do differently in Pensacola, and that was actually one of the comments I made. There were probably some times that I should have pushed the council harder on issues. I have high regard for elected officials. Every manager needs to determine when to be out front on an issue and when to advise them. [The newspaper editorial] is probably a fair criticism.
Do you consider working with the council your biggest challenge in Pensacola?
I think the biggest overall challenge was a combination of some unfortunate events. It seems like every time we set a course and had gone through some divisive public process to reach community consensus, something happened. We rebuilt and felt like we had new direction and then three hurricanes hit. As we’ve come out of hurricane recovery and set a new course, the overall economy and the housing market hit.
Baker has faced criticism after several high-profile city mishaps for failing to hold the city staff accountable. What accountability measures have you issued in Pensacola?
At this point, I would rather try to stay away from responding to that. Any response there could be seen as affirming or reaffirming those perceptions. Clearly, staff needs to be held accountable. We all are entrusted with public responsibility. The details of how we do it in Pensacola compared to how Durham does it is way premature for me to comment on. I don’t intend to perform autopsies on what has been entombed. We need to look to the future.