COVINGTON - Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight was appointed city manager Thursday evening.
Following a nearly hour long executive session, the city council opened chambers to the public and voted 3 to 2 to appoint Knight. The motion was made by Councilman Keith Dalton and seconded by Councilman Mike Whatley. Councilman Chris Smith also voted in favor. Councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin were opposed. Councilwoman Janet Goodman was absent.
Knight was out of town and not immediately available for comment. She will be the city’s first female city manager. Mayor Ronnie Johnston said it’s not yet clear when she will officially take over the position.
The vote took place before a group of about 20 citizens. Johnston opened the floor for citizens’ comments after the vote, but no one spoke save for one citizen who complimented city employees on their good work and another who asked for the motion to be repeated because he arrived after it was stated.
Knight was one of the top three candidates selected by the council from a field of 104, including 98 “outside” candidates and six city employees.
The council has been divided on the city manager appointment from the outset, with the mayor having to cast a tie breaking vote to name the top three, which also included Covington Police Capt. Craig Treadwell and Oel Wingo, currently interim city manager for the city of Williston, Fla.
Some officials said the division was due to perceived conflicts of interests between Dalton and Treadwell, who own a business together, and Smith and Knight, whose children are close friends.
But officials made it clear they are ready to move beyond those concerns.
“I feel very comfortable with it. I think Leigh Anne Knight is a very competent young woman,” said Whatley after the meeting.
Whatley had previously said he was not happy with the final candidates’ qualifications. But he said Thursday that Knight has done a great job overseeing the city’s finances, which is also a major role of the city manager.
“Neither one necessarily met my qualifications 100 percent but she met them more so than any of the other three,” he said.
Smith said he has received many calls from citizens who asked that the council put one of the top three finalists in and not start the process again.
“I think it’s good for the employees to see we’re going to stand behind our employees and try to move the city forward,” he said.
Dalton stated,”I’m glad it’s over with. I’m very comfortable with this decision.”
Williams’ and Franklin’s opposition “was not a vote against Leigh Anne,” Williams said.
“We are going to work with Leigh Anne,” she said. Williams said the two were upset that a vote took place while Goodman was absent. “This woman has been on the council for 30 years and they completely ignored her,” she said.
Johnston said however that there are always situations where someone may be absent from a meeting. “We had a quorum, so it was appropriate from that standpoint,” he said.
Although Johnston had previously said he didn’t want to break another tie, he said he told the council he would this time if it came down to it, so the city could move forward.
“I think it is a great decision for the city of Covington and I am very proud of the council that we have finally made a step forward in the city manager position. I think Ms. Knight will make us proud, I really, really do,” he said.
Knight has been finance director with the city since 2009 and also serves as assistant city clerk.
Just three days prior to Thursday’s decision, the council voted 4 to 2 to have the search consultant bring it more candidates after denying a motion to appoint Treadwell, also by a vote of 4 to 2.
In the interim, officials said they have received hundreds of calls from citizens asking them to move forward and not restart the search process.
Also, Jim Mercer, of The Mercer Group, who led the search, sent an email to Johnston warning that the council’s divisiveness could be a problem.
“We will be pleased to continue the search process, but the Council needs to recognize that with a split council and the publicity that has surrounded their actions, a number of prospective candidates will be reluctant to apply,” he stated.
Mercer also stated that, in keeping with the city’s contract, there would be no additional professional services fee charged for additional work, but out-of-pocket expenses would be charged and could run between $5,000 and $8,000. Mercer capped out-of-pocket expenses at $4,500 for the initial search effort but said a second search would be “much more difficult” and “we need to have an expense budget more typical of our normal search efforts.”