Justin Hembree brings experience to temporary town manager's job

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Land of Sky Regional Council Executive Director Justin Hembree, who is serving temporarily as the town manager for Black Mountain, works in his office in town hall on June 1.

Black Mountain alderman Larry Harris knew where to turn May 22 after former town manager Matt Settlemyer abruptly resigned. Harris, the Black Mountain delegate to the Land of Sky Regional Council and chair of the organization’s executive committee, thought of Justin Hembree.

Hembree, the executive director of Land of Sky, a multi-government planning and development organization, quickly agreed to serve as town manager while elected officials search for an interim town manager (the interim manager will hold the spot until alderman hire a permanent town manager). 

Hembree came well qualified, Harris said. Hembree, who has a master's degree in public administration from Appalachian State University, has been county manager of Mitchell County and town manager of Tryon. He’s also served as interim assistant county manager of Henderson County.

Hembree joined Land of Sky, which counts 19 city and county governments from the region as members, six years ago. The organization provides resources and technical assistance for member governments, including Black Mountain, Montreat and Buncombe County. 

The town of Black Mountain named Land of Sky Regional Council executive director Justin Hembree interim town manager on May 24 after Matt Settlemyer resigned abruptly on May 22.

Harris is in his second year chairing Land of Sky's executive committee, made up of delegates from cities and counties throughout the region. He asked Hembree, who Harris said has a "calming influence," if he would be willing to fill in as the town manager on a temporary basis until a long-term interim manager could be found. Land of Sky and Hembree agreed.

"That just sort of plays into the types of services that the council has traditionally provided," Hembree said. "We agreed that I would step in and help out."

The town was looking for someone who could immediately step into the town manager role and have a comfortable relationship with the current staff, Harris said. 

"That's a position you can't have vacant," he said. "We needed to have someone there who was competent and able to negotiate the day-to-day duties associated with the job."

Hembree will serve as the manager for "the next few weeks," Harris said. "We have really strong department heads," Harris said. "So Justin will work with to support them as they continue to do their jobs."

Town services should continue to operate normally, Hembree said. "We'll ensure that the operations and services expected by the citizens of Black Mountain will continue without interruption," he said. "I see my role not as someone who is going to come in and implement new policies and procedures, but simply to make sure the town continues to run effectively and efficiently."

With Hembree in place as the town's top administrator, elected officials can focus on finding someone who can serve in the role on an interim basis before considering permanent candidates for town manager. 

"Justin is serving as an 'interim interim' town manager, so to speak," mayor Don Collins said. "Now we've started looking for a full-time interim and then we'll move into a search for a new town manager."

The process to find an interim managers is already underway, according to the mayor. "We have phone calls out and municipal agencies looking for a good fit," Collins said. "Justin is also helping us get in touch with people who would do well in that role too. We're getting a list together, and we'll start interviewing in a week or two."

Harris said the town has received interest from potential interim managers and is continuing to look. 

"We'll be able to conduct the search for an interim manager on our own," Harris said. "Of course the League of Municipalities has great resources and structure for helping us search for a permanent replacement." 

Settlemyer,  who became town manager in 2012, turned in his resignation May 22 in a closed session with the mayor and board of aldermen. Elected officials would not comment on the details of his resignation, calling it a "personnel matter."