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Two candidates interviewed for Elizabethton post

John Thompson • Mar 15, 2013 at 10:15 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The first two interviews by the Elizabethton City Council to choose a new city manager was a study in contrasts.

The Friday afternoon interviews began with a “get to know you” question-and-answer session with Senior Planner Melissa Peagler of Morristown and ended with a much more familiar candidate, interim Elizabethton City Manager Jerome Kitchens, who is also the finance director for the city.

All seven council members participated in the sessions and asked questions of Peagler intended to give them a better understanding of her character and the way she leads. Peagler demonstrated that she had already become familiar with Elizabethton through previous visits and Internet research of the city’s websites, audits and newspaper articles.

Because Kitchens was well known to the council members, they seemed to focus more on how he would lead if he is selected as the full-time manager.

Both candidates expressed a strong belief in the democratic process and said their job was to direct the staff in accordance with the wishes of the City Council.

The candidates are very different in their previous experiences. Peagler has been working in planning and economic development for her whole career, while Kitchens has been involved with finance at both county and city levels.

Peagler worked in Hendersonville, N.C., for a year in 2001-02. She left when she became pregnant with her first child and her husband’s career led the family to Hamblen County. Peagler said she found she was not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom and took the planning job with Morristown in 2004.

Kitchens started as a teacher in the Carter County School System in 1988 and moved to the central office after seven years to become an assistant to Vocational Director Shirley Ellis. He entered the financial management end of government in 1998, when he became budget director for the county school system. When the county consolidated its financial activities, Kitchens moved to the courthouse as deputy director of finance in 2004. He became the county’s finance director in 2007 and transferred to be Elizabethton’s director of finance in 2011.

Peagler said she minored in communications when she was a student at the University of Tennessee and said she excelled in being a good communicator while she has been in Morristown. “It is very important to communicate truthfully to the City Council,” she said.

She also said she was “very solution-oriented” and tired to “find the problem and find the solution.”

One example she gave was how she solved dissatisfaction by developers and council members with Morristown’s sidewalk policy, which required sidewalks to be built as part of a new development. She said developers were unhappy about building “sidewalks to nowhere” and solved it by requiring them to pay into a fund instead of building sidewalks. The fund would be used to connect and repair the sidewalks.

Kitchens was asked by Councilman Richard Tester to list the most pressing problems Elizabethton faced. Kitchens said the list includes commercial development, which he said was not so much being “business friendly as taxpayer friendly”; downtown revitalization; residential development; school projects; sidewalk repair, which he said was critical; stormwater drainage, which he said was shown to be a problem with the heavy rains the city received in January; and street paving, which he said was always the first things to be cut when the council trimmed the budget requests.

Tester also asked Kitchens what he thought about a tax increase. “Nobody likes a tax increase,” Kitchens said. He said the council needed to make sure it did not bankrupt their children with high taxes, but they also needed to make sure they didn’t bankrupt the next generation by failing to maintain the infrastructure.

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