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Burlington city manager Hardin Watkins to retire next month

After six years at the helm of Burlington’s municipal government, city manager Hardin Watkins has announced his plans to retire from the business of local government administration.

Watkins formally announced his decision to retire on Tuesday after he, first, broke the news to Burlington’s city council in a closed-door discussion that followed a regularly-scheduled public meeting that evening.

In his subsequent announcement, Watkins declared that he would step down from his post on March 6, ending a 32-year career in public service that has included 23 years as the city manager in three different communities.

Watkins went on to assert that it has been with a sense of great privilege and pride that he has served as Burlington’s top-ranking administrator. He insisted, however, that the time has come for him to lay down the mantle and embark on a new phase in his life.

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“While there’s never an easy time to leave a job this complex,” he acknowledged, “this seems to be the right time for a leadership change.

“My experience in Burlington has been wonderful,” the outgoing city manager added. “I appreciate the trust and confidence that the city’s elected officials have placed in me…My years here have been terrific, and I’m proud of the success that we’ve achieved together.”

Watkins went on to recount some of his proudest accomplishments in a letter that he shared with each member of the city council on Tuesday. Among these highlights, he mentioned his role in forming a new police advisory team, the creation of the city’s economic development department, his efforts to steer the city through the coronavirus pandemic, and his oversight of projects ranging from the restoration of Burlington’s antique Dentzel carousel to the overhaul of the Valley, the city’s publicly-owned golf course.

Watkins’ retirement comes at something of a pivotal moment for the city of Burlington, which has witnessed a number of recent transitions within its municipal staff as well as its elected leadership. Perhaps most noteworthy has been elevation of long-time city councilman Jim Butler to the office of Burlington’s mayor. Butler ultimately wrested this post away from his predecessor Ian Baltutis, whose six-year tenure as mayor coincided roughly with the time that Watkin has served with the city.

Butler ultimately betrayed no hard feelings toward Watkins as he accepted the city manager’s decision to retire on Tuesday.

Hardin Watkins was introduced as Burlington’s new city manager in December 2015 by then-mayor Ronnie Wall, who will also be a party to the council’s task of replacing Watkins. Watkins started as Burlington’s city manager on January 11, 2016, coming to Burlington after serving as town manager in Garner.

“Hardin and I first spoke about his contemplating retirement several months ago,” the mayor recalled that evening. “He followed up with me a few weeks ago and told me that he did intend on retiring.

Butler went on to reveal that, in order to ease the transition to a new city manager, he had invited Watkins to serve as a consultant during the interim, which he predicted would last for a period of six to eight months. Butler proceeded to ask the rest of the council to sign off on this arrangement, which passed on a unanimous vote.

The actual text of this contract, which was distributed to the council after the meeting, alludes to an “employment agreement” that Watkins obtained from the council when he was hired in the fall of 2015. The consulting contract goes on to note that, because Watkins has left the city’s employ voluntarily, he is entitled to no further compensation under the earlier agreement. It nevertheless adds that, in order to facilitate “a successful transition in the city’s management,” Watkins will be retained in the capacity of an independent consultant, with a monthly stipend of $15,500, or a total of $93,000 over the six-month term of the contract.

During his announcement on Tuesday, Watkins hinted that he has no plans to resume his career as a municipal manager after the expiration of his consulting deal with the city.

“Twenty-three years of having more than one boss is kinda hard,” he added in reference to his three, consecutive turns as a municipal manager. “My fellow manager peers are making similar decisions; my good friend Bryan Hagood in Alamance County is retiring real soon, as many of you know.”

City manager Hardin Watkins (right) with former city manager, now city councilman Harold Owen (left).

Watkins went on to assure the council that, while retirement will give him more time to relax, he has no intention of frittering away the rest of his days in a hammock.

“I will likely explore other opportunities that will allow me to continue my lifelong journey of making communities better,” he said. “I’m also looking forward to spending more time with my wife; she has endured a lot of late meetings…My father has been struggling as he ages, and I look forward to spending more time with him.”

See other Burlington news this week:

City council approves new recycling rates that triple monthly charges to residents:

City council puts off consideration of nuclear resolution until March:

Council members disappointed by prognosis for Western Electric redevelopment:

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