Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell at a Jan. 3 press conference during the city's water outage. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

With City Manager Debra Campbell’s contract set to expire in early December, City Council will hold a closed meeting Sept. 12 to discuss the future employment of the city’s top executive.

Campbell, who started work for Asheville in December 2018 after a long career with the city of Charlotte, is working under a five-year contract that will expire Dec. 2. If City Council were to take no action, the contract would automatically renew for another two years “unless notice that the agreement shall terminate is given at least 30 days before the expiration date.”

A low-key manager known for being reluctant to work in the spotlight, Campbell has maintained a low profile despite some very high-profile, controversial, and sometimes contentious issues in the city. Those include the protests and rioting in 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, the City Council-mandated removal of the Vance Monument downtown in 2021, and, more recently, the prolonged city water outage over the 2022-2023 holiday season.

The Vance Monument was dismantled in 2021 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. // Photo credit: City of Asheville

The city also continues to wrestle with an uptick in homelessness and aggressive behaviors, problems that have bedeviled cities across the country.

“Like any manager, Debra Campbell finds herself in the hot seat in this current political moment,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. “Nationally, cities have been the source of protests and controversies surrounding a host of issues, and Asheville has been no exception.”

Campbell declined an interview for this story, but she did confirm via email Tuesday that the Sept. 12 meeting is being held to discuss her contract.

None of the four council members Asheville Watchdog reached for this story — Mayor Esther Manheimer and Maggie Ullman, Sandra Kilgore, and Sage Turner would comment about the meeting. The Watchdog could not reach councilmembers Antanette Mosley, Sheneika Smith, and Kim Roney.

An email from City Council Clerk Maggie Burleson to City Council members states the council will hold a special meeting at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 12 in council chambers and “will immediately go into closed session to prevent disclosure of information that is privileged and confidential” and “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee.”

Campbell joined Asheville in 2018 after serving as assistant city manager in Charlotte from 2014. She started working for that city in 1988 and served as planning director there from 2004 through 2014.

In a city news release announcing her hiring, Campbell promised “to work tirelessly and collaboratively with elected officials, staff and every sector of this community to build on the positive momentum underway in this great city, and to address issues related to public safety and trust, social and economic disparity, and environmental stewardship.”

The resolution accompanying her hiring contract noted the city received 75 applications for city manager before choosing Campbell. She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and a master’s degree in public administration from Middle Tennessee State University. Campbell is a member of the American Planning Association, the Urban Land Institute, and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, according to the hiring press release.

Campbell, 65, makes $242,694 a year, plus a $6,000 annual vehicle allowance. She receives an annual review, and her employment record from this year shows she has received raises each of the past three years from her initial salary of $220,000. Those salary increases were listed as “Pay increase – All employees.”

Asheville has a “council-manager” form of government, sometimes also known as “strong manager, weak council.” That means Campbell works at the pleasure of the City Council, but she conducts the hands-on management of the city, while the mayor and council decide on policy.

Campbell replaced Gary Jackson, a white man who had held the job for 13 years but was fired in a unanimous vote by the city council. While the council did not cite a reason for the firing, Jackson had become embroiled in the handling of a case involving a Black pedestrian who was beaten by a white Asheville police officer.

Cooper said the calling of a closed session to discuss the city manager’s job is “standard local government practice” in North Carolina, so he didn’t read anything into the timing of the meeting. But Campbell’s tenure has been fraught with controversy, and some residents have complained that she is ineffective.

“Managers don’t have a long shelf life in today’s local politics,” Cooper said. “The days where managers were above politics and were just involved with garbage collection and stayed out of the papers, those days are over. It’s normal to have managers who lose their jobs.”

Or who leave on their own volition.

The job search firm Zippia, founded in San Francisco in 2015, stated in July that, based on over 2,000 resumes in its database, that 37 percent of city managers stayed on the job one to two years, 20 percent stayed three to four years, and 15 percent five to seven years. The firm also noted that 76.4 percent of city managers are white, and just 3.7 percent Black.

As Campbell is the city’s first and only Black manager, her termination or a lack of contract renewal could also put a spotlight on race, Cooper said.

“Certainly, race is going to matter in how whatever decision they make is perceived, particularly in a city that’s experienced more than its fair share of disagreements around race over the last few years,” Cooper said.

The removal of the Zebulon Vance obelisk downtown, which honored the Buncombe County native and Civil War governor of North Carolina who was a noted racist and slave owner, drew heated discussions in Asheville. So did the City Council’s vote to pursue reparations for Black people.

Cooper said council has to decide if Campbell’s performance has been problematic enough to warrant a termination of her service and start the complex process of searching for her replacement. That could leave a leadership void, and the city is not guaranteed to find a dynamic successor, Cooper pointed out.

“It’s not just Debra Campbell versus a perfect manager,” Cooper said. “It’s Debra Campbell versus what the market would allow right now.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at To show your support for this vital public service go to

34 replies on “Asheville City Council to hold closed session on city manager Debra Campbell’s future employment”

  1. Please cut the cord with this passive, conflict-fearing, scaredy cat, introvert who hides from the very residents she’s hired to represent and serves only to hire consultants to tell her what to do about anything. Why should we pay $250k year for Campbell to in turn hire consultants at $250k a pop to tell us what to do. She can’t make a decision to save her life. She’s never even responded to a single email I’ve sent her. EVER! Please let Asheville hire a dynamic city manager. We need some real leadership before we go all the way down the drain we’re already circling.

  2. She should leave with a bit of dignity rather than hear a whole city beg for her to be fired. She is worthless as a city manager!!

  3. Race, sex, or religion should not be a factor in what qualifies someone for a job. She’s an introvert that is ineffective in her position. But it really stems from the constant poor choices our city council makes.

  4. She needs to go. Find a real manager that isn’t afraid to manage. She should retire voluntarily but if she won’t, the city should let her go. Do not renew her contract.

  5. From all I’ve seen and heard, Asheville has gone steadily downhill over the past five years. Time for a change!

  6. As a resident, taxpayer and voter, I’m very concerned about one of the city manager’s primary responsibilities: hiring a qualified, proficient and action-oriented police chief. If we’re going to use “business” monikers (manager) to describe our leaders, then we should use business KPIs (key performance indicators) to evaluate their jobs. Here are a couple of good ones, all of which would be a manager’s responsibility: attrition/retention rates of staff; appropriate and equitable disbursement of tax revenues back into their source neighborhoods; mitigation of risk to the city and its coffers. I’m sure there are more. PS. AVL’s city manager gets paid more than a US Representative or Senator (currently at $174k p.a.).

  7. Her disastrous management of the water crisis alone is grounds for dismissal. Why would Council even consider extending her contract?

  8. Funny (not) that Debra’s race has never been mentioned in previous articles about her perceived failures. Everyone always talks about her being ‘low-key’ or ‘introverted’. But if she’s fired for failings, then it’s likely all going to be about race. I sure hope not.

  9. I’m curious that Shaneika Smith was not mentioned when you listed Councilmembers that you tried to contact about Ms. Campbell’s contract. Why was that?

    1. Hi Nina, thanks for pointing that out. We did attempt to reach out to her, and had noted that in a later version of the story as it was being edited. But it inadvertently didn’t get included in the story. It’s been added

    1. Thanks for asking. Asheville Watchdog follows Associated Press style. From the AP’s stylebook: AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.

      The Associated Press has considered whether to capitalize white but has not done so. From the AP’s vice president for standards: White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, we are a global news organization and in much of the world there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes. We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.

      Some have expressed the belief that if we don’t capitalize white, we are being inconsistent and discriminating against white people or, conversely, that we are implying that white is the default. We also recognize the argument that capitalizing the term could pull white people more fully into issues and discussions of race and equality. We will closely watch how usage and thought evolves, and will periodically review our decision.

      Again, thanks for the question.

      1. By capitalizing one group while not another is racist, plain and simple. And also silly. Do you seriously believe that capitalizing White conjures up memories of White supremacy in people. The AP explanation is ludicrous and your following of the practice is devisive, not inclusive.

      2. So, Black is a people, and black is a color. Also, white is a people and white is a color because capitalizing white for people causes race and equality issues. Also, white people don’t have the same history and culture. Sounds totally convoluted and illogical but by all means follow your chosen standards. 🤣

      3. Curious — Why not just NOT include the race of anyone for any reason in any case. Although the AP Stylebook helps with setting standards, sometimes standards have to be improved.

      4. This explanation is fine an example of double-speak. A lot of words, but nothing was said. My hopes for quality journalism from this source are rapidly diminishing. It appears the watchdog has gone to sleep.

  10. Odd that Ms Campbell is educated as an urban planner, and belongs to the APA, yet has shown absolutely no interest or leadership in urban planning. It seems to me that our biggest challenges are related to development and growth, and this continues to be neglected, in favor of proclamations and cultural issues.

  11. Everyone needs support and feedback in their job position. I hope that many suggestions/direction was given to Ms Campbell. Sometimes the problem is not the person but the supervision.

    1. A city manager earning nearly 250k shouldn’t need the amount of support and feedback (and coddling) that this manager may have received. That’s a leadership position. Or should be…

  12. Leadership should be about making decisions on what the constituency wants. The followup to that should be publicly explaining why the decision or vote was made. Except in generalities, we get little to none of that here, especially from city manager, but also city council. There have to be reasons, we just never learn what they are. Makes you think there’s a pre-planned agenda.

    1. Here are three cities fairly similar in size, with city manager salaries.

      Wilmington – $236,250
      Hickory – $219,005
      High Point – $237,803

      Asheville – $242,694

  13. Bye bye, I hope. My main concern is that the decision on a replacement…if that’s what the opt for…will be made by the current city council.

  14. Ms. Campbell is far from the perfect manager, but she is not the root of the problem. The roots of Asheville’s troubles lie with the hapless city council. Asheville could hire the best manager on the planet and still have the same problems that it has today. To compound the stupidity, the current city council would never hire the best manager on the planet. That council prefers someone who is docile and won’t push back. If my take on the situation is correct, the council should stick with what they’ve got. She’s docile, just like any manager the council is likely to hire, plus she has a modicum of institutional memory. Until the council grows some brains, there is not going to be a bit of improvement, no matter who holds the position.

  15. The City Manager declined to be interviewed for this story. I’m o.k. with her decision regarding this story. I’m not o.k. with her lack of availability on the other major stories involving the city. Responding to media inquiries is part of the job.

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