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Departing Gainesville city manager leaves big shoes to fill
Padgett moving on to North Carolina job after 13 years with Gainesville government
Gainesville City manager Kip Padgett is resigning to take a similar job in North Carolina.

When Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett announced his resignation in May, he expressed nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to serve the city in many roles over the last 13 years.

Padgett’s last day is Thursday. He has accepted the position of town manager in Wake Forest, N.C., a job he said is both a good career move and one that will bring his family closer to his wife’s relatives.

Padgett described Gainesville as a wonderful place to live and work.

“This council, the employees and the citizens of this great city will always hold a special place for us,” he said.

But life as the city manager wasn’t always an easy job.

“I was hoping for a honeymoon period, but certainly didn’t get that,” he told The Times in a recent interview. “Things were challenging.”

Padgett took over as Gainesville’s unofficial CEO in January 2009 after Bryan Shuler resigned the city manager’s post in November 2008 following accusations of sexual harassment.

Padgett had worked for the city since 2002, first as the planning director and then as assistant city manager.

He believes his relationships with city officials and employees, well established by the time he became city manager, helped stave off any mistrust that might have built up.

“I don’t think it was a big issue as far as rebuilding any trust,” he said.

As soon as he took over, Padgett was tasked with navigating the city through the tumultuous financial straits of a local, state and national economy in the midst of a deep recession.

“That was a very tense and a very busy time for us,” he said, adding that the he had to make the hardest decisions of his career, including employee layoffs and furloughs, during that time.

But holding the line on spending and taxes earned Padgett a reputation among city leaders as the key figure in weathering the economic storm of those years.

“He took the reins and he ran with them,” said Mayor Danny Dunagan. “He led us through the economy just about unscathed.”

While Padgett said he is happy with the direction the city is taking, he understands that many challenges must be addressed after his departure.

One of the bigger issues on the table is implementing a citywide traffic plan to relieve current congestion and prepare Gainesville for more growth.

“We still have a lot more needs than we have money,” Padgett said.

Padgett also said he hopes the city will continue to invest in its employees. On average, employees of the city of Gainesville earn 7.7 percent less for entry level pay than their counterparts elsewhere in the state, and 2.1 percent below market at the middle of each pay grade, according to the results of a new study released earlier this month.

City Council voted to implement the findings of the pay study over the next two years, giving salary increases to most workers beginning in late July.

Padgett said it’s important to make this investment to improve recruitment and retention of workers, which will pay off in cost savings over time.

One of the common ideas floated to reduce local government costs is to consolidate and merge Gainesville with Hall County, similar to what was done with the city of Macon and Bibb County a few years ago.

County officials roundly support the idea, but city officials typically regard it with contempt.

“(The debate has) been here long before I got here and I’m sure will continue after I leave,” Padgett said.

The cost factor, even if true, is just one element to be considered, Padgett said, adding that he believes consolidation works best in urban counties where one significant municipality reigns, such as Athens-Clarke County.

“People have traditionally lived in cities because they want the more intensified services,” Padgett said, adding that public safety services and zoning regulations to protect property values are critical for Gainesville residents and could be lost in the shuffle to merge local governments.

There is a fine line that all city managers must toe, pitting governance on one side and politics on the other.

In some ways, Padgett has been viewed as the unelected member of the council, working to deliver accurate information and counsel while staying above the political fray.

The consolidation debate isn’t the only issue that pits Hall County versus Gainesville. Battles over sales tax revenue splits have been common in recent years, for example.

“There’s some animosity at times,” said Councilman Sam Couvillon, before adding that Padgett has the kind of demeanor that refuses to let these squabbles negatively impact his performance. “He realizes we have to work together.”

Dunagan said Padgett’s success, in part, was a result of his ability to walk that tightrope, reporting honestly to council members while also following their decisions, even if they ran counter to his own advice.

“He’s got a lot of common sense,” Dunagan said, an attribute that can sometimes seem in rare supply.

And it’s a quality that city officials said they will consider, in addition to knowledge and experience, when searching for Padgett’s replacement.

Gainesville’s chief financial officer, Melody Marlowe, has been named interim city manager while officials seek a permanent replacement for Padgett.

City officials have said they will advertise the city manager’s opening beginning Wednesday and will accept applications for the job until July 31. The top five candidates will get interviews.

Couvillon said officials have their hands full trying to find Padgett’s successor.

“It’s those leadership qualities and ability to work with others and communicate that I’m really looking,” he added. “(Padgett is) a pro’s pro.”

Couvillon said that he spoke with Padgett when he was contemplating running for the City Council, and was encouraged by Padgett’s willingness to work with each and every elected official.

“Whatever Kip told me that day, he has followed through with,” Couvillon said. “The thing that impressed me is his ability to work with others ...”

Padgett, when asked what had surprised him most about his tenure as city manager, gave a response that sounds like advice for whoever follows him.

“Expect the unexpected,” he said.

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