Fisette: Brown Wasn’t a Good Fit With Arlington

by ARLnow.com October 7, 2010 at 4:59 am 5,674 63 Comments

Former Arlington County Manager Michael Brown was asked to step down by the county board after it was decided he wasn’t a good fit for the county, Jay Fisette revealed for the first time Wednesday night.

Fisette, speaking at the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s monthly meeting, acknowledged that Brown’s sudden resignation and his $110,000 severance payout left more questions than answers last week. Video of the speech was posted on YouTube by the Blue Virginia blog.

“I understand some clarity is maybe required regarding the severance payment,” the county board chairman said. “I know there’s been some conversation in the community.”

The severance “was fully consistent with the terms of his contract, and was not discretionary,” Fisette continued, contradicting the official line that Brown resigned due to his wife’s health. (His contract included a clause that required a severance payment of half his $220,000 salary in the event of termination without cause.)

As for why the board dumped the executive it hired after a seven-month, nationwide search just four and a half months into his tenure, Fisette didn’t get into much detail.

“When the board determined that Mr. Brown’s fit with our organization was not what we had hoped for, Mr. Brown was given the opportunity to submit an official resignation letter to the county board,” he said.

As for Brown’s replacement, Fisette heaped praise on long-time county employee and former interim county manager Barbara Donnellan, who was sworn in as the county’s first permanent female county manager on Friday.

“We are very fortunate to have her at the helm, and she will do us all proud,” he said.

  • Observer

    Why the need to lie about it, Jay?

    It is not that Mr. Brown was not a “good fit for Arlington” it is that he wasn’t the pushover the County Board wanted and to which it is accustomed. Mr. Brown was a breath of fresh air in the County government structure. While Ms. Donnellan is very accomplished and well liked, it means we are back to business as usual, with everything done behind closed doors and any public process just a charade.

    • Fed Up

      Given the choice between breaking the rules by giving a severance payment that wasn’t warranted by the contract because Mr. Brown “resigned voluntarily” and lying about the details of Mr. Brown’s departure, the County Board chose both. Way to go!

    • John Antonelli

      But I remind you that the CB is an elected body. the manager is hired to carry out their whims. SO do what I do and not vote for Zimmerman

  • Let’s Be Free

    Just one more quarter of a million dollar “mistake” made by the County elite that they tried to hide behind a facade of lies. And then conspiring to use the guys poor wife as a pawn. Outrageous.

    • Lou

      I don’t believe the board brought his wife into it. It sounds like they gave him the opportunity to write a face-saving resignation letter, and he chose what he wrote himself.

      The Board, and anybody else involved in the search, obviously botched this. They owe us a better explanation for his firing.

      • John Antonelli

        If there was a Republican on the County Board, you would have had that answer. Now, it wil never see the light of day.

    • Tess

      Yes, I agree that it was outrageous for Mr. Brown to use his poor wife as a pawn – but then again, that is between him and his wife.

    • TuesdaysChild

      Agree. Good comment.

    • NorthAdams

      complete lack of character on his part. if you need to make an excuse for “resigning” — use yourself. not your spouse.
      how exactly did we get this guy in the first place?

  • ::facepalm::

    I hope for the County’s sake we’re still not getting the full story here and the reality is they fired him for some act of gross negligence or some other behavior that could potentially be a legal liability for the County.

    That being said, there absolutely needs to be an investigation into this now because either A) Brown did something that warranted firing after only four months and as a public official paid by our taxes, I think the public has a right to know why. Or B) the Board just wasted a ton of money on a search and severance because somebody couldn’t play nice.

    My thinking is Fisette said what he said because something else is about to break and he’s prepping the ground for it. What we need now is a good investigative journalist to start digging at this story. Come on Scott, it’s your time to shine!

    • david

      Exactly. Agree 100%. For this amount of money we’re owed something more than “not a good fit”.

    • Arlington Taxpayer

      It’s up to ArlNow because none of the traditional media do investigative reporting. This one is ripe for the picking and has been since the County Board made the decision in the dead of night — no doubt it was 5-0.

      • It wasn’t any one specific thing, I’ve heard or been told several times. I get the impression that the real reason is a lot less sexy than one might have first thought. Still, it’s being kept amazingly quiet.

    • John Antonelli

      Yes he told then to drop the HOT Lanes are Racist suit.

  • GK

    I think the County Board owes us, as tax payers, the reasons why he was not a good fit. They bungled this and it cost their constituents, not them. This CB is fiefdom that needs to be reigned in.

  • WhatDidntFit?

    My guess is it was mostly conflicts with senior county department heads. It’s a completely uninformed guess, but having met him, I would say he was ready to shake things up and make it his county government organization. That could be good or bad depending on your point of view but either way probably riles up the long time staff that probably have a sense that the way things had been done were pretty successful. Ultimately, that would translate into conflict with the County Board, hence the parting of ways. From my perspective, he was a “good fit” in that he had a compatible view of community development, seemed like a diligent manager of community operations and (importantly) brought an outside perspective. I’m an enthusiastic fan of how the county has been managed over the years in general, but it’s not good to be completely insular.

    • Greg

      “brought an outside perspective” — I bet this is why he got the boot.

      • Stanley

        You are so lucky the guy who ran Savannah like an estate, broke rules, gave raises to his posse only stayed for a few months. I would not blame the county.I know I worked with him for a few years. A total jerk.

        • 4Arl

          Quite typical for what you get when a government uses an “executive” search firm. With Arlington’s county manager form of government, you are somehow expected to find a competent manager who’s willing to cower to a board that often has no clue. What qualified leader would want to come to Arlington? The only attraction could be a great guaranteed $ deal, and/or those retiring from another government pension and looking to double/triple dip. The system is set up to fail for outsiders.

  • Bob Griffin

    You should have picked me

  • Skeptical

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find — if someone has a crystal ball — that Mr. Brown got a load of things like 1) the county taking over Columbia Pike, at a hefty cost, so that the Trolley Folly can proceed unimpeded 2) a quixotic and ridiculously couched lawsuit over “racist” HOT lanes 3) political posturing over “opting out” of the non-optional Secure Communities program… and spoke his mind oftener than the Board wanted him to, after which he was told politely not to let the door hit his fanny on the way out. The exit comes remarkably soon after discussions of the budget situation, and I’d bet Mr. Brown spoke to the Board about that in language they didn’t like to hear. All speculation, but all the more reason they need to tell us what was really the problem.

  • RestonRunner86

    Considering this is a personnel matter does the county even have the authority to spell out the specifics behind Brown’s departure? If not, then would it be worth risking more of your tax dollars in a lawsuit that Brown might file if confidential personnel matters are aired? If so, then I do agree that “not a good fit” still leaves a lot of unanswered questions subject to speculation. I’m sure county officials probably read this blog from time to time to gauge what their constituency is saying about them and/or what concerns they have about the community at-large (and it was probably related threads to this topic that were very volatile that prompted Mr. Fisette to provide a bit of clarification).

    My take on this? Mr. Brown was behaving in too authoritarian-like of a manner, and county officials resented his inability to “get along with others”. Mayor Fenty just lost his re-election bid for precisely this reason of being “not liked.” The board wanted to get rid of Mr. Brown but also wanted him to have some dignity, so they let him voluntarily resign using his wife’s illness as a credible reason to do so. They thought this would all then go away, but everyone asked the typical question “Why give him severance if he did in fact leave VOLUNTARILY, as the county is cash-strapped, and that wasn’t specified by his contract?” Now Mr. Fisette does indeed clarify that Mr. Brown was asked to resign in response to that logical question to throw people a bone.

    Will we ever know more than that? Who knows? It’s possible a back-room deal was arranged that Mr. Brown and the board would keep quiet about the specifics of Mr. Brown’s departure in exchange for his resignation. I do have my suspicions that Mr. Brown’s perspectives were not congruent with those the board possessed and that he was a “lone wolf” against a “pack mentality.”

    • Nadie

      If you knew Mr. Brown you would know that he was not the authoritarian type. Matter of fact, things moved very slowly operationally while he was here. Nice personality, not a good fit.

      • Katie

        I’m only being semi-sarcastic, but wouldn’t someone like Michelle Rhee shake things up?

      • alebt

        After a seven month search and settling on someone who has had over 15 years of comparable experience, how do you get to “not a good fit” in four months? It can’t be due to a snap decision-making culture among the Board or County leadership. Heaven knows the Arlington Way is anything but quick. Is the bunker mentality so strong among County employees that any questions are by definition bad questions?

        • Ted

          The way you get to “not a good fit” is that the Board screwed up negotiations with the #1 candidate. Brown was the #2 choice. I was told that Brown was a distant #2–that there was a big gap between #1 and #2. The Board did a National search, had a clear #1 choice, offered him the job and then once he was out here, low-balled him on salary, benefits and relocation expenses. He turned the job offer down. I was told that the Board was stunned by this and had not expected him to say “no” so they weren’t really prepared for the “plan B” issue. The Board was then faced with either….starting a new search (with more expenses and more time) or, sealing the deal with their #2 choice (Brown). To make sure that Brown said “yes” they offered him more money, more benefits and more relocation money than they offered their #1 choice. I would argue it was a decision made by politics–not democrat or republican but rather, a desire to not make the search look like a failure and to get something (a manager–even if he was rated far below the first choice) rather than nothing.

          I would argue that offering the position to Donnellon is similar. It’s a way to minimize political fallout and avoid having to pay for another search, regardless of whether or not she’s a good fit.

          • alebt

            Thanks Ted for the insight. This makes some sense out of a bad situation.

  • John Catoe

    Whoever was responsible for the seven-month, nationwide search that resulterd in Brown’s selection needs to be held accountable as well.

    • bob

      In arlington, job search fires you.

  • Lou

    Can we get some clarification on the reports that the package was voted on and approved by the board, and the quote from Marcy Foster that the package was approved by the board to help Brown with his transition back to Savannah?

    It sounds more like this was all between the attorneys.

    • John Antonelli

      The CB approved it like they have to approve everything. So are you all so angry you will vote Zimmerman out over this. I am but otherwise you are all just wasting band width

  • Gentlemen League

    This is a local job. For local people!

    • Ted

      Brown had ties to the area. The #1 candidate had significant ties to the area. And local candidates were solicited in the initial search.

      The problem is this: if your search says…
      –we want someone with executive experience at a local government level
      –they need to be a local government with a AAA Bond rating
      Then all of a sudden you have no local candidates. The head appointed official for Fairfax County or Montgomery County would consider it a step down to come to Arlington–less pay, less responsibility. All other localities are too different (rural, much smaller) or don’t have the reputation of someone you’d want to hire.

      Or you can hire a deputy who’s never had executive responsibility. And assume that someone who’s good at managing another person’s initiative will suddenly become an effective leader and change agent. Sometimes that’s true. Most if the times it isn’t. Or there has to be a period of growth on the job where someone learns to become a leader and executive.

      To say “hire locally” is effectively to say “let’s hire someone who’s never done this role in an urban county before–let’s either hire a subordinate with no executive experience (but maybe ran a good Parks and Rec department) or someone from a rural county like Stafford or Calvert or let’s hire someone from a jurisdiction like DC that has a series of major issues and assume this person had nothing to do with those problems.” Or you hire someone who has no experience working in local govt. at this level (but is with the Federal govt. or from Richmond or private industry). To me that’s a prescription for disaster.

  • S. Arl. resident

    His “resignation” i.e. firing came after he announced a $35M deficit for 2011 as well as the Board’s decision to opt out of the secure communities program.

  • NorthAdams

    I’m glad Fisette came clean.
    I suppose with a different chairman (CZ) we wuold still be wondering.

  • alebt

    As a 20 year Arlington resident, I am deeply concerned that this long time one-party board could pay for an executive search, come to agreement on an out of state candidate and then dump him in less time than it takes for them to agree on who is next in line to host the gavel. In my opinion, unless Mr. Brown committed a heinous violation of professionalism, he deserved more than four months to prove his skills. I can not come to any other conclusion other than that the Board was really interviewing for a Stepford wife. What upsets me most is that identifying and employing professional management for our county should not be a partisan issue. How on earth can you mess that up on an all Democratic Board when you have had plenty of time, opportunity and money to figure it out? Each Board member should own up to either their inattention, complacency, arrogance, stupidity and/or general bull headed-ness and offer an apology to the taxpayers for a colossal waste of time and money.


    The Arl Cty Board needs stop wasting the property tax dollars from the residents on items such as this. If the board members will not tell the truth, then folks are unlikely to vote for them again. Will Christopher Zimmerman lose some votes over this?

  • Equipment Bee Adam

    The cost for the national search alone cost over 100k, so when you add it all up it pays to look what you have locally.

    • Ted

      Maybe Donnellon will be a great managers, maybe she won’t. What I was told was:
      –local candidates were considered in the first search, it’s just that the search was not limited to only local people.
      –she was not a candidate for the first search b/c she was not regarded as strong enough.
      –she did not go through any of the review process that the other candidates went through. In fact, her response upon being hired seems to imply that there was no formal evaluation process at all.

  • William Tecumseh Sherman

    What were his accomplishments in Savannah?

    • John Catoe

      savannahnow.com says “council members often expressed frustration that he was not responsive to them or to citizens.”

      • Clarendude

        That’s one quote out of an otherwise mostly glowing article


        Alderman Tony Thomas, a 10-year member of council, offered his praise for Brown.

        “This is a huge loss for Savannah,” he said. “The imprint that he has made on this community will never be erased. I hope we do a nationwide search to look for a person with a very unique set of skills who has a proven track record of running a city as unique as Savannah.”

        He was obviously a talented manager. Savannah is a unique place and so is Arlington in very different ways. Perhaps “not a good fit” is going to be the best explaination.

    • Lou

      ““Michael Brown is a thoughtful, articulate and dedicated manager who brings broad expertise and a record of strong fiscal management,” said county board chairman Jay Fisette, who announced Brown’s hiring this afternoon. “He has a proven track record of success on economic development, public safety, and regional and planning issues. We look forward to having him on our team.”

      During his 15-year tenure in Savannah, Brown provided city assistance for more than $1 billion in development, including retail stores, hotels, and condominiums. He supported the development of Savannah’s waterfront and the creation of more than 5,000 units of affordable housing. He was also instrumental in historic preservation and directed the creation or renovation of numerous parks.”

      Sourced from this very blog.

    • Stanley

      Nothing, Savannah is run by a good old boy network, which he served with diligence. The only newspaper we have is more like a payed employee, you have a very smart board, that recognized his shortcomings and his position vis a vis governing which is basically through intimdation, I scratch your back you scratch mine.

  • Kit Kat

    I don’t know Michael Brown, so I can’t tell if he was a good fit or a bad fit. But the board worked with him every day, and four months is enough time to know whether or not its going to work out. And it didn’t. This is a setback for the county, but I’m glad that the board had the guts to get rid of someone who can’t handle the job, rather than waste even more time and money propping up a failing executive just to save face. I’m mad that my taxes were wasted, but glad that the county cut its losses now. I just wish the county would do the same with the HOT lawsuit.

    • Disgusted

      It’s a pretty big assumption that Mr. Brown “couldn’t handle the job” or that he was a “failing executive”. I suspect the issue was just the opposite: Mr. Brown was trying to do the job that he is legally bound to do, i.e. manage the county in accordance with applicable laws, the Constitution of the United States, and the County Code. Unfortunately, it seems the County Board and the former County Manager operate under a “do what ever we want” mentality and having someone in the County Manager’s seat who actually holds them accountable to what they are supposed to do puts a crimp in their game.

  • TuesdaysChild

    I think some of the members of the county board are not a “good fit” for arlington. I agree with the above comments that either the Board screwed up the search/hiring process, or Mr Brown did something to merit firing. My gut feeling is that it was the former. If so, Jay owes a greater explanation and apology for screwing up the search/hiring process. This appears to be one of the many bad judgement calls by the Board in the last year.

  • Eddie

    I know better then to ask – but what prevents the board and all involved from believing that their constituents are able to handle the truth? Cripes…

    • Col. Nathan R. Jessep

      I hold the belief that most people can’t handle the truth. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be told.

  • Ted

    I was told by an insider that Board bungled things with the top candidate in the nation-wide search. That top candidate was evidently the first choice by a significant margin over Michael Brown. That candidate was low-balled on salary, benefits and moving expenses and turned the offer down. After a 7-month search and expecting their first choice to say “yes” the Board failed in the negotiations with the top candidate and then upped the offers and paid more to a distant #2 choice (Michael Brown) in terms of salary and bennies and I think relocation (though I’m not sure about that) than they did their clear #1 choice.

    I was told that a private detective was hired to investigate some of the candidates. And that board meetings of the candidates were videotaped.

    I don’t think it’s a case of the search being mishandled. I think it’s a case of the negotiations being mishandled.

    I can’t say why Michael Brown didn’t work out. Maybe it was politics (though I tend to doubt that). Maybe it was competence. Maybe he was in over his head–I believe that Arlington County is a bigger challenge than Savannah. Maybe it’s not fitting the Arlington Way or work style as an executive. I can’t say for sure.

    What is interesting is that my understanding is that the Deputy Manager (Donnellon) was not a candidate the first time around because she was not regarded as qualified or a serious contender. Now she’s hired without having to go through the evaluation process that others did 7 months ago. Maybe her time is deputy answered all those questions. But I suspect (and do not know for sure) that she was offered the job so quickly for PR reasons–to go without a Manager for so long, take a long search, lose the #1 choice, the #2 choice fails to work out, it looks bad PR-wise to then initiate another search.

    As for the initial reason that Michael Brown gave for leaving, we may dislike that kind of deception but it’s common now with firings and dismissals. You seek to give the other person a chance to save face. If someone feels they’re being dismissed for the wrong reasons and disagrees, they can fight it and then what do you have? Delay, legal costs, mud-slinging, paralysis as we wait for things to be resolved. I don’t like it when the official word is “X resigned for health reasons” or “to pursue other opportunities” but sometimes that’s the least costly, most efficient way of acknowledging a mistake and moving forward. That is often the case with executives in both the public and private sector.

    • Anonymous Coward


    • John Antonelli

      Donellen didn’t want the job the first time, but was my choice until I found that out. The question with Donellen is what changed her mind. Methinks ching. One can put up with a lot of CB BS for a the right amount of ching.

      • Ted

        What I was told was that Donnellon didn’t meet the standards for the initial search and if she had applied would not have made the cut. Maybe those were unreasonable standards, maybe not. But do note, that in this case there was no search, review or serious interview process leading to her hire. I wish her well. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that just b/c she got the job she’s well qualified. I think she got the job b/c the Board wanted to minimize the fallout of Brown being dismissed and a new national search.

  • Willy

    More proof that the County Board are a confederation of fools. They have crammed development down our throats, made us a magnet for undocumented persons, crammed our schools so now we have kids in trailers, and spend millions for an unneeded Arts center in Rosslyn when we still have school buses without seat belts years after a terrible school bus accident. All the board members ought to be voted out of office as soon as possible.

  • Willy

    Oh by the way, we’re opting out of the Secure Communities Program? STUPID. Hey CB what if somebody in Arlington County gets murdered by a criminal who goes un-caught because you want to opt out? How about if foreign terrorists go uncaught because of your actions? What will you say to the family of somebody who gets killed by some criminal who goes free because of you. God forbid something bad happens–it will be on your heads. Have you no decency? You are losers and should be dumped.

    • John Antonelli

      Its worse than that. Some illegal immigrant gets locked up for say oh child rape. He gets a VA prison sentence and ICE is supposed to come get him when he is done. WELL VA often lets Chester and his buddies go early so they don’t have to feed em and ICE either forgets to lock em up or botches the job and they get TURNED LOOSE in OUR community earlier

  • G

    Great posts willy! I agree. Vote the board out. They are not a good fit for our county!!

  • LibraryFriend

    I don’t know much about Brown’s experience, but after having listened to him at the Columbia Pike Library citizens meeting – the very week he started – , he was patronizing, condescending, and out-of-touch with the public, and spent more time on his blackberry than apparently listening to the crowd. Regardless of how good he may have been as a manager, alienating the people who he is supposed “manage” rubbed many people the wrong way, so I can imagine that “not a good fit” might actually be a valid excuse. I didn’t like him right off the bat, and wondered there and then how good a manager he would make if he kept making disparaging comments about the people in the county he was supposed to manage.

    • Danny Maze

      And his actions are any different from when the Board decides to step away from public meetings to get water, take a phone call how? Seriously, it sucks.

  • Dan

    “he was patronizing, condescending, and out-of-touch with the public,”

    Says probably more about the folks who hired him.


  • Patrick Gossage

    There ought to be an FBI investigation into how the county uses federal funds.

  • Danny Maze

    My understanding of it was that Brown was going to comply with the Presidents law in regards to requiring the Police to report/ask possible illegal aliens about their status. (I know I have the details wrong about this law) and the County Board did NOT want to comply because they are trying to maintain a liberal vibe in the county. I am liberal mind you.

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