MPC's Newest Hire Reveals a Lack of a Transparent Process

At the end of 2011, shortly after Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was sworn into office, she eliminated the office of South Waterfront Development, which had been created by her predecessor, Bill Haslam. The senior director of the office, Dave Hill, lost his job in the reshuffling.

Now, less than three years later, Hill is back in the City County Building as the new deputy director and manager of comprehensive planning at the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Not everyone at the agency is happy about it.

Several staff members have raised concerns over the lack of an open hiring process—there was no posted job vacancy. Nor are they thrilled with his $100,000 salary, especially as no one is getting raises this year—the agency had to draw $252,000 from a reserve fund to balance its recently passed $4.5 million budget. Hill's salary makes him the second-highest-paid employee after Executive Director Mark Donaldson, earning slightly more than Deputy Director Buz Johnson, who's been at MPC since 1977.

Hill first came to Knoxville in 2003 from Denton, Texas, when he was hired to be the executive director of the regional planning agency by the 15-member commission (which is itself appointed by the city and county mayors). MPC staff are neither county nor city employees, even though they manage land-use plans and subdivision plats in both. The agency is funded by federal, state, and local tax dollars, fees charged for services, and grants.

But Hill didn't stay at MPC for long. After just 10 months, he joined the Haslam administration as chief operating officer in April 2004—a job that included a $35,000 raise from his $95,000 salary at MPC. After a search for another director, the commission hired Donaldson in early 2005, a position he still holds today. Donaldson's former place of employment? The city of Denton.

Donaldson admits he and Hill have been friends for a long time.

"He's a good friend—a great friend," he says. Donaldson says the two families regularly socialize, although not as much as they used to, and that he and Hill used to golf frequently (although they haven't in three years).

Hill is more circumspect. When asked the nature of his friendship with Donaldson, Hill said he considers him "a longtime professional acquaintance."

"That's one of the reasons we work so well together," Hill says.

However, Donaldson says hiring Hill back to the agency he left 10 years ago has nothing to do with that friendship, nor does it have anything to do with him following in his friend's footsteps at MPC. (Donaldson says Hill only told him about the opening all those years ago, and the commission hired him on his own merits.)

"I know his background. He's the former director of the MPC," Donaldson says. "When he was working for the city, he was managing the most effective planning process in the history of the city, I would say."

But Hill's hire didn't follow the usual channels. Over the winter, the then-manager of comprehensive planning, Mike Carberry, made it clear to Donaldson that he would be retiring this spring after almost 26 years at MPC. According to Hill, Donaldson e-mailed him and said if he was interested in Carberry's job, he should send a resume and a statement of his interest in the job.

Hill was definitely interested. After losing his job with the city—where his salary had risen to $150,505 in 2011—Hill was unemployed for over a year. Unwilling to uproot his family from Knoxville, Hill finally landed a job with the city of Asheville as a community development analyst managing housing funds. But he was making a third of what he had earned under Haslam—$49,198.

Hill e-mailed his resume to Donaldson. And that was it—no interview, no visit, no anything. Hill was hired.

But not only was Hill hired to replace Carberry, he was also given the new title of deputy director, and he was offered more than Carberry's $89,314 salary. Donaldson says he extended the $100,000 number himself, with no negotiating involved.

According to Carberry, the majority of MPC management found out about Hill's hire at a meeting at the end of March. Yet other staff members didn't know until Hill started work on April 28. The agency also didn't publish a release about Hill's job until May 14, a couple of days after Victor Ashe mentioned it in his weekly column in the Shopper News.

Both Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett's offices said they were not made aware of the hire until after it had happened this spring. Yet Hill says that before he accepted the job, he specifically asked if it would be appropriate for him to return to MPC and work with the city on a regular basis.

"I didn't want to be where I wasn't wanted," Hill says, adding that Donaldson told him no one had a problem with it.

Neither the city nor the county chose to comment on Hill's hire, but there are people who do have a problem with it—a sizable portion of his 35 coworkers at MPC.

We spoke with several staff members; all requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, but all confirmed a majority of their colleagues had expressed unease over the hire.

All said they personally like Hill. None questioned his qualifications. But all did question the lack of an open hiring process. Never, each said in separate interviews, had they ever seen anyone get hired in this manner, even for part-time, non-permanent positions.

"I don't know of any instance where we've not posted a job listing for a vacancy," says one staffer who's worked at MPC for many years.

The staff members raised the point that it can't be clear if Hill was indeed the best hire if no one else got the chance to apply for the job. They also voiced concerns that no women or minorities had a chance to apply for the job, per Equal Employment Opportunity policies. Out of eight managers in the agency, only one, Finance Manager Dee Anne Reynolds, is female.

The most recent MPC Employee Handbook, adopted by the commission last December, states in a section entitled "Promotions and Transfers" that "[p]romotions are based on an objective evaluation of each vacancy and the candidates involved. Vacancies will be advertised and, when possible, MPC will promote from within and will first consider employees with the necessary qualifications and skills, unless outside recruitment is deemed to be in the best interest of MPC."

At the June MPC Agenda Review meeting, Commissioner Beth Eason asked Donaldson about that section of the handbook and how it related to Hill's hire. He told her that he had talked to an MPC staff member about the position, but he didn't feel that person had the qualifications to do the job.

"I think the process could have been handled differently, more in line with the ‘Promotions and Transfers' section of the employee handbook," Eason said in a phone interview earlier this week.

In an interview Tuesday, Donaldson wouldn't identify the employee he considered for the opening. When asked whether it would have been more in line with the employee handbook to post the vacancy and let other staff members apply, Donaldson says no.

"That's in the section on ‘Promotions and Transfers,' and I had already gone through the process of deciding that I wasn't going to promote anybody into that position, and I wasn't going to transfer anybody into that position," Donaldson says. "I analyzed the capabilities of the people that work here and decided that I needed to go elsewhere."

Commissioner Bart Carey says hirings are, ultimately, Donaldson's call, but he's also somewhat concerned at some of the questions being raised.

"It makes me wonder, are our bylaws and guidelines for hiring where they should be? Is that an issue we need to look into? I feel like I need to find out more," Carey says.

Carey might have a chance to find out soon. Late Tuesday afternoon, Donaldson fired Reynolds, the sole woman in management. Donaldson declined to expound on what happened, and we couldn't reach Reynolds by press time. But you may expect that the hiring process for her replacement won't look like Dave Hill's.