Naked City

Conner's Curious Contracts

Marcia Conner
Marcia Conner (Photo By John Anderson)

Former Austin Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner -- now city manager in Durham, N.C. -- is under fire there for awarding lucrative contracts without soliciting bids, executing signed documents, or notifying the Durham City Council. Among the recipients is Conner's former Austin City Hall colleague Byron Marshall -- now executive director of the Austin Revitalization Authority -- who's been paid $24,000 since January for consulting work on a Durham housing-rehabilitation project. Durham city leaders suspended Marshall's contract last Thursday, after the Durham Herald-Sun broke the story.

While Conner initially claimed that she had nothing to do with the Marshall contract, she later acknowledged he was hired at her request and without following the city's usual procedures. So were several other Austin colleagues, including former city HR director Ruth Ann Edwards, whose current firm has a Durham contract worth up to $27,000, and Chicago lawyer Colette Holt, who helped draft Austin's minority-contracting ordinance under Conner and has earned more than $7,000 so far to do the same in Durham. Conner also awarded a $75,000 contract to the National Forum of Black Public Administrators, of which she is the former president.

At the City Council's request, Conner has identified a handful of such agreements worth a total of $270,000 -- not all to vendors with Austin connections. But Durham Mayor Bill Bell has asked city auditors to review all of the city's 1,400 contracts. In addition to Conner's procedural lapses -- which may have violated both Durham code and North Carolina state law -- city leaders want to know how many contracts have gone out of town and out of state instead of to local firms.

Conner, who has been running Durham since June 2001, has been summoned to a Nov. 18 closed-door meeting with the mayor and council. Council members haven't ruled out firing her, local papers report, but mostly want answers. In letters published in the Herald-Sun and Raleigh News and Observer (alongside angry missives from citizens calling for her ouster), Conner says that "Since I arrived here, my focus has been on getting the job done. And, I must admit, in my zeal to be responsive to the community, and my own personal passion to move the city forward, I've made some mistakes ... I assure you that personal gain for myself or for anyone involved with these projects was not the intent. What was done was done to ... improve our city and move toward the future."

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