February 28, 2011

Hyde County’s new manager is a local who aims to make a difference


Mazie Swindell Smith is rarin’ to make a difference as Hyde County’s first female county manager.

A Hyde County native, Smith, 55, began work Jan. 3, was officially named county manager Feb. 3, and loves every 12-hour day of it.

Perhaps that’s because she feels her varied professional life has been preparing her for what she feels she was meant to do.

 “I think the time is just right for me and my skills because I understand what we need,” the affable Smith says with a ready smile in a recent interview during a visit to Ocracoke. “This is my dream job.”

As someone who has lived and worked elsewhere in the state, she can look at things with fresh eyes.

Smith has experience in business and budget management, personnel management, training, teaching, economic development, marketing, corporate communications, and fundraising, and she intends to put it all to use for a long time to bring consistency to the county government.

“The citizens are ready for consistency,” she says. “I want to restore faith in our government and for our citizens to be proud of our government and our county.”

While pointing out that “the county commissioners are the visionaries” and she is just carrying out their orders, she has definite ideas about the many aspects of her job.

“I love putting resources together with needs and putting things together despite the challenges,” she says.

One of her top priorities will be to strengthen the county’s organizational structures.

Personnel management is one area that needs attention.  “We need to get a performance review system in place,” she says. Now, there is none.

Another priority is to have a stellar website and to improve the county’s overall computer technology.

“We need to embrace technology,” she says.

She wants to assess all the buildings the county owns and centralize all the county supplies.

But she stresses that she will not bring too much change too soon.

“There are some good folks on staff—seasoned veterans as well as young people,” she notes. She knows that morale is low. “They’ve been through a lot.”

One thing that will help the county be proactive rather than reactive, she believes, is a strategic plan, which the county does not have. Smith has experience as a leader in building strategic plans. 

Having one will tie work to the budget. March and April will be the start of public hearings on the budget, with special attention to trash service, for which the current contract will be up in October.

“We have the same issues with trash as three years ago,” she says. “Bring it in-house or not? Do away with curbside pick-up? What can we live with? Trash will be a toughie.”

Hyde County’s budget is probably as lean as it can get, she notes, with the school system and solid waste the largest pieces.

Nationwide, she notes, this will be an especially difficult year in terms of budgeting.

“This upcoming budget session is going to be the toughest across the nation since the Great Depression,” she says.

Amidst all the work, she says her door is open.

“I encourage people to ask questions and give input,” she says. “I appreciate hearing from people—their concerns and what’s working well.”

She thinks that one of the strengths of the county is its feeling of community. Despite the large body of water separating the mainland from Ocracoke, she feels that the citizens have a sense of community with each other.

She hopes to be on Ocracoke at least twice a month.   Besides, the two and a half hour ferry ride provides a respite from ringing telephones.

“I get more work done on the ferry than in the office,” she says with a laugh.

Sharon Spencer, chairwoman of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners, notes that so far, Smith has done an excellent job.

She explained that the commissioners wanted a county manager to show his or her commitment to the county by living here.  Even though Smith did not have all the experience some of the candidates had, she could learn, Spencer said.

Moreover, the interim manager, David Smitherman, who the commissioners hired from May to January, is available for consultation any time.

“I’m very optimistic and think we made the right decision,” Spencer says.

That Hyde County is Smith’s “hometown” is in her favor. She knows many of the citizens and issues.

Her grandmother, Louella Swindell, was the postmaster in Swan Quarter in the 1940s and among the first female postmasters in the country.

An unabashed cheerleader for Hyde County, Smith grew up on the Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge where her father Hal Gray Swindell, Sr., 88, who lives with her in Swan Quarter, was a biologist-technician.

“I had an awesome childhood,” she says, happily noting that the family nursed many injured wild animals while experiencing the simple joys of rural life.

“I love to bottom fish for croaker—sitting in a boat on peaceful waters,” she says. “It’s my favorite fish.” 

When Smith left Hyde County in the 1970s for college, the county was a little more rural than it is today. There were no four-lane highways and no traffic lights then in the county, which is still the case.

During her first summer in college, she worked for the county cleaning out the courthouse attic and later selling water meters to the citizens in advance of a new water system.

The following two summers she worked as an intern in the register of deeds office.

Her first job out of college was with Tideland Electric in the accounting department. After that, she became the business manager for AgriWorld Farm Management Co., in Engelhard from 1979 to 1982, where she had daily accounting and supervisory duties.
She parlayed her position as volunteer radio announcer at WHYC radio at Mattamuskeet School from 1984 to 1990, into a paid job as mass communications teacher, radio station manager, volunteer coordinator, and assistant cheering coach.

From 1990 to 1996, she worked in marketing and communications for Tideland Electric, the city of Rocky Mount, and Eastern Equipment Dealers Association.

She was the energy manager for Wake County Public Schools from 1996 to1999. As such, she began and energy conservation program called “EnergySavers,” that, in its first year shaved $900,000 from the $13 million annual electric bill. This program went on to win local, state, and national recognition as a model program.

Since that job required training personnel in ways they could save energy, her job evolved into one of director of professional development.  That lasted until April 2010 when she retired from the state.

Last July, she and her husband, Dan, who is the national fire director of the National Association of State Foresters, took a leap of faith and moved back to Swan Quarter, where she worked as a credit analyst at East Carolina Bank until December.

Her communications skills developed when she worked from 1982 to 1984 as Hyde County bureau chief for the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, where she also delivered 400 papers each day in addition to covering the news.

“I feel like Forest Gump, she says with a laugh about her varied career. “Whatever the situation I’ve found myself in I’ve found good things.”

She and her husband love to travel, and she enjoys photography, gardening, and fishing.

Her son, Hunter, 27, is a teacher in Wake County.

Smith has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Meredith College, Raleigh, and a master’s degree in adult education from East Carolina University, Greenville.

She also has a diploma in energy management from the school of Energy Engineering at North Carolina State University.

She is ebullient in her love for Hyde County and eagerness to work hard.

“I can’t fix everything,” she says, “but I don’t want to dwell in the iniquities of the past. I want to go forward.”

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