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Turner Roth carves fast-track to federal post

by Eric Ginsburg

eric@yesweekly.com @Eric_Ginsburg

Denise Turner Roth isn’t going home — she’s leaving it. An outpouring of support after the news that Greensboro’s city manager will take a top post with the General Services Administration appears focused on the fact that Turner Roth is returning to her old stomping grounds of Washington, DC, and while she appreciates the well wishes, Turner Roth says her family made its home here.

“Something that keeps getting missed is that I’ve been here for 10 years,” she said. “We’ve had our child here. It’s very much a place we’re going to miss. It’s not that I am going home. I am leaving the place I chose in my adult life to make as my home.”

Turner Roth and her husband, Teamsters Local 391 representative Chip Roth, were putting down deep roots in Greensboro. They bought a house a little more than a year ago on the lake in Adams Farm, one with a “beautiful 60-foot deck,” Turner Roth notes, a hint of sadness in her voice as if she’s already left it behind.

“It’s not an easy thing to move to DC,” she said. “We’ve been very happy living here.”

Turner Roth will miss much more than the porch — most of all she says she’ll miss the people, but also the ability to recognize people around the city.

“There’s definitely a lot of anonymity in DC,” Turner Roth said. “I really like how engaged the community is here and how people like to get out and do things and are active.”

That said, it’s a big opportunity — not exactly the kind of thing to turn down and not without some significant excitement. President Obama appointed Turner Roth as the deputy administrator of the General Services Administration, and she will assume the position on Feb. 3.

To an extent, Shirley Frye saw this coming. Or at least something like it.

Frye, the chair of the Bryan Foundation, met Turner Roth while serving on the search committee for a vice president of government relations for the Greensboro Partnership. Roth immediately struck Frye as an excellent candidate for the position — only one outstanding issue lingered.

“My only concern was would she come to stay, because you could tell she was a talented and outgoing person,” Frye said, adding that Turner Roth is a strategic thinker and careful listener. “I think she will do a great job wherever she is and, as I said, that’s what I was afraid of. You knew that she was going to move other places.”

By the time Turner Roth’s resume landed in Frye’s hands, the emerging leader had already lived in Greensboro for several years working for Democratic Congressman Brad Miller.

Turner Roth met Miller, who left Congress in 2012 after redistricting, at John Edwards’ house the day the nowdisgraced candidate announced his 2004 run for president. Turner Roth and Chip were dating — he already lived here — and she took an opportunity with Miller after learning he would open a Greensboro office.

After she managed Miller’s successful reelection campaign in 2006, the Greensboro Partnership hired her effective at the beginning of 2007. In November 2008, right as the nation’s economy nosedived, Turner Roth’s trajectory altered again as the city hired her as an assistant city manager.

As with any new job, the first few days brought significant changes, but this time more than any other.

“I found out my first day at work that I was pregnant!” Turner Roth said, laughing as she remembered her early days with the city. “We had been trying to get pregnant for two years maybe. I was in a new circumstance physically and professionally.”

Other big changes were in the air, too:

Three months after City Manager Mitch Johnson hired her, the city council voted to fire him in one of the most infamous moves in local politics in the last decade. Turner Roth’s son was born the following summer, and when she returned from maternity leave, Rashad Young had replaced Johnson at the top of the ladder.

Later Young would take a post in Alexandria, Va., and Turner Roth assumed the role of interim city manager until a different city council decided she should officially fill the job.

In some ways, she says, her leadership style differs from Young’s approach; in other regards she tried to build on his model.

“He had a very clear direction of what he wanted from a management team and he had a strong perspective of the strongmanager form of government,” Turner Roth said. “I think he had a good balance with council in that regard. I think I may be more collaborative. I guess my approach to things is to use all the resources you can. I was able to build on some of the concepts that Rashad had started [such as] performance management.”

Many of Turner Roth’s current and former colleagues remember their time working with her fondly, including former deputy city manager Robert Morgan. After council fired Johnson, Morgan assumed the interim role.

“Denise is very smart and very hardworking,” he said. “I enjoyed working with her a great deal and really appreciate her and assistant city manager Andy Scott’s work with me when I was the interim manager because we were really shortstaffed. We had a very challenging time cutting the budget that year.”

The budget was hardly the only difficulty in the manager’s office in 2009, and Turner Roth entered the job with somewhat of a disadvantage, Morgan said.

“I guess it’s fair to say that she got some of the flack from some of the council members because Mitch [Johnson] hired her,” he said, adding that it was a contentious relationship at the time. “She was given flack when she came onto staff… and she was under a lot of scrutiny, and she handled it very professionally. She added a great deal of value to the organization. I felt she was always a good team player so that made the organization run real well.”

Former mayor Robbie Perkins, who served on council throughout Turner Roth’s tenure with the city and was mayor when council hired her as the city manager, is one of her staunchest supporters.

“People in my view haven’t treated Mitchell Johnson very fairly,” he said, “but one of his great successes was hiring Denise Turner Roth from the Greensboro Partnership and allowing her a chance to really blossom as a manager. I saw a huge change in Denise under the tutelage of Rashad Young. How she grew as a manager under him at that time was impressive and made me want to hire her.”

Perkins was so impressed by Turner Roth and other recent top staff hires that he based part of his failed 2013 reelection bid on touting the creation of a new city staff leadership team.

Perkins said he is confident that Turner Roth will “flourish” in the nation’s capital — after all, it’s where he informally interviewed her. On a city lobbying trip to DC, Perkins said he essentially treated two days as an informal interview session before council hired her as the city manager.

Like Frye, Perkins said he grew to be friends with Turner Roth.

“It’s just plain hard not to like Denise,” he said, adding that he hopes they remain close friends. “I admire her tremendously. It’s Greensboro’s loss but I am so proud of her and the work that she’s done.”

Turner Roth dealt with an array of challenging issues during her tenure with the city including departmental structure and leadership, several police controversies, municipal solid waste and tight budget years. She’s had to make numerous tough calls, and as far as Mayor Nancy Vaughan is concerned, she’s handled it well.

“I think the days of scandal and unease are past us,” Vaughan said. “I think the city is in a better position now when it comes to our employees and how they feel about the government they work for.”

Part of that process has involved reworking departments, Vaughan said.

Under Young’s leadership, the city combined the planning department and part of engineering and inspections, but after realizing it wasn’t working as planned, Turner Roth pulled them apart into planning and a new neighborhood services department that includes housing and inspections. Vaughan also said Turner Roth ushered in significant changes in parks and recreation.

“Right at the very beginning of her tenure she kind of took on the parks and rec department and she took the very strong step of letting a department head go, which doesn’t happen very often,” Vaughan said.

Turner Roth fired department head Greg Jackson and later oversaw the hiring of Human Relations Director Love Crossling. Last year she also worked out a deal to keep Chief Ken Miller, and arranged a pay raise for Coliseum Director Matt Brown, a move that angered some council members and residents because he is already the highest paid city employee.

Noting that she can’t discuss personnel issues, Turner Roth said she’s proud of the city’s departments and is particularly excited about the neighborhood services department.

“From a structural perspective, one of the things I really believe in is putting people in the right seat to be successful,” she said. “If something is not working we also have to be willing to say, ‘The way things are organized is not giving us our highest and our best.’ I think any organization needs to do that periodically.

We truly have a very dedicated group of employees here who see this as a place they want to be proud of and proud of working for.”

Despite internal and external issues, Turner Roth has maintained the calm public face that the city initially hired her to be.

“She never shows that she’s upset no matter what’s happening, even when she’s been personally attacked by people who come and speak before council,” Frye said. “It’s just unbelievable how she is able to do that.”

Several people repeatedly addressed city council meetings and Turner Roth during her tenure with the city, particularly former police Capt. Charles Cherry and former city council candidate Ben Holder. Her critics argue that Turner Roth has provided cover for the city, particularly on allegations of police corruption, and blast her as lacking transparency with public records and other city business.

“Denise Turner Roth was a mascot,” Holder said. “She did whatever she was told no matter what. The public records were a mess. Look at the Eva Foster situation. She doesn’t play the game, she doesn’t affect the score, she just stands on the sideline and represents the team. Of course she’s going to be some big-government, over-paid cog in the machine.”

Holder, who once Photo-shopped Turner Roth’s face onto an image of a stripper covered in money, also said he blames her for problems with housing, police and human relations. Cherry, who frequently clashes with council and Turner Roth, called her “a corrupt, stupid liar” in one letter to the city.

City spokesperson Donnie Turlington provided a radically different description of the outgoing city manager but also referenced cheerleading without prompting.

“I think the thing I could tell you about her is that she’s very genuine,” he said. “What you see is what you get and there’s not a lot of beating around the bush. She’s passionate. It doesn’t necessarily come across as being this rah-rah cheerleader passion as much as a determination.”

Like Turlington, newly elected District 2 Councilman Jamal Fox described Turner Roth as someone who brings people together but isn’t afraid to be direct and doesn’t sugar-coat reality. Fox worked for the city manager’s office as an employee before running for office.

“There hasn’t been a time I could say that I questioned her leadership,” Fox said. “Working for Denise, it was great. She was always careful about how we went about things to make sure we did them the right way. She always had the community in her mind, and that was great. She has taken the organization to a higher notch and a higher level.”

Fox emphasized Turner Roth’s ability to bring people together to work more effectively and efficiently. During his time working for her, Fox said the office tried to get departments to work more cohesively together and internally.

Those types of changes rarely catch headlines, which is why Turlington said he isn’t surprised that many people are unaware of the positive changes Turner Roth made.

“I think it’s hard maybe for the public to see it,” he said. “In two years, I think she’s done a lot of things that have created more teamwork and buy-in and camaraderie among the staff. Not that there was discord and that sort of thing in the past but we’ve really broken out of silos.”

When the city has felt mired down in tumultuous issues such as allegations about the police department, Turner Roth said, she has tried to remind people of the daily victories of the city as an institution — the trash continues to get picked up, the parks are strong, crime is down and streets are paved. Turner Roth said she tries to focus employees and the public on the job at hand and not being dragged down by the past or things they can’t influence.

Vaughan, who said she will miss working with Turner Roth, heeded that advice, knowing she can’t change the fact that Turner Roth is leaving even though she hoped the city manager would be around to see several projects such as the performing arts center to the end.

“I am disappointed that she’s leaving, but the city is bigger than any one person,” Vaughan said.

Turner Roth has worked hard to make sure the city will function smoothly in her absence — something she planned for since the beginning even though her eye wasn’t on the door, she said. In fact, it was part of the job description, former mayor Perkins said, especially after the short tenure of her predecessor.

“The true test of a manager and the board that manages that employee is in developing a succession plan,” Perkins said. “That was something that I stressed with Denise, and she executed it perfectly. There certainly are managers in that office that are capable of doing that job, and that’s a testament to Denise.”

Turner Roth knew she’d need a strong team around her for things to go well, and part of that meant hiring Jim Westmoreland to leave a job in Durham and return to a position with the city. He will take over as interim city manager when she leaves, allowing the council time to conduct a search for her replacement.

“To me it’s somewhat of a bittersweet moment,” Westmoreland said. “I consider her to be a very highly effective leader and I think a whole lot of the person that she is and her integrity and her character and the passion that she’s put into it.”

It’s bittersweet for Turner Roth, too.

She wishes there had been more time to get to know employees, adding that she loved hearing people’s stories and briefly trying out their jobs. Turner Roth spent time learning the ins and outs of the city by visiting work units and taking a stab at it, painting lines on the road, planting vegetables or geeking out over the street signaling and sign shop.

It’s how Denise Turner Roth approached every aspect of the job, colleagues said: getting down to the human, individual level of an issue while thinking about the big picture and the best way to deliver services. And it’s what she will miss the most about this city as when she moves on: the people. !

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