‘Tired of seeing white men leading this city’: Former Petersburg city manager loses bid for Oak Ridge job

Former Petersburg city manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, left, speaks during a public forum Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ferrell-Benavides, who was Petersburg city manager from 2017-21, was a finalist for the top administrator's position in that eastern Tennessee city. With her at the table is Lane Bailey, senior vice president of GovHR USA, the search firm that vetted the finalists.

Former Petersburg City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides was passed over Friday for the city manager’s job in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in a vote that at least one City Council member hinted was based on racism. 

The job for which Ferrell-Benavides was a finalist went to Randy Hemann, the town manager of Mooresville, North Carolina. He was chosen by a 5-2 vote, with the two votes against him going to Ferrell-Benavides. 

One of the votes for Ferrell-Benavides came from Rev. Derrick Hammond, the only Black member of council. Hammond was quoted by The Oak Ridger newspaper there as saying while he would not say for the record that the vote was biased, “while some things change, some things don’t.” 

The newspaper also quoted a resident who spoke at a forum before the vote who said she thought Oak Ridge needed a change that only Ferrell-Benavides could provide. 

“I’m tired of looking at white men leading this city,” Teresa Green said, per the newspaper. “[Ferrell-Benavides] is absolutely the very best person for the job.” 

Ferrell-Benavides, who was city manager in Petersburg from 2017-21, left to take a city manager’s job in Duncanville, Texas, her home state. She was fired in March 2023 after calling attention to issues involving Duncanville bookkeeping. 

Her attorney claimed, however, that Ferrell-Benavides had been feeling racial tension ever since the narrow vote by that council to hire her. In a statement read by the attorney at the time she was fired, Ferrell-Benavides said she took the job even thought she had “questioned whether the city was ready for an African American city manager.” 

Oak Ridge, a city roughly the same size as Petersburg with a population of 32,000, is 81% White, according to the 2020 Census Bureau records. Slightly more than 6% of the residents there are Black. 

In remarks at a public forum where she and Hemann had the chance to plead their cases, Ferrell-Benavides mentioned her work at stops in her career, including Petersburg. She said Oak Ridge needed a leader who would “deliver results with compassion and professionalism.” 

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, city councilors Ellen Smith, left, and Derrick Hammond voted for former Petersburg city manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides to be that city's top administrator. Former North Carolina town official Randy Hemenn was eventually chosen over Ferrell-Benavides.

At the council meeting the day after the forum, Ferrell-Benavides also had the support of the only woman on council, Ellen Smith. According to The Oak Ridger, Smith said Ferrell-Benavides had “the outward facing leadership we need at this phase of our history,” touting her leadership especially in Los Alamos, New Mexico, from 2003-24. 

In the report from The Oak Ridger, city Mayor Warren Gooch appeared to dismiss Smith’s comments about Ferrell-Benavides, saying that she was only there a year and Los Alamos “was 20 years ago.” He and the remaining four councilors, all White men, voted for Hemann, who also is White. 

Mooresville, a 52,000-resident suburb of Charlotte, is 78% White and 10% Black, according to the 2020 Census data. 

Ferrell-Benavides is also one of four finalists for the city manager post in Largo, Florida. Largo, a city of 82,000 in Pinellas County, is 23 miles west of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

Read the story from The Oak Ridger here.

Donna Smith, news editor of The Oak Ridger, contributed to this article.

Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at batkinson@progress-index.com or on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @BAtkinson_PI.  

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