Siler City’s new town manager starts May 16

Hank Raper says town won’t squander opportunities during Chatham’s growth spurt

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SILER CITY — Siler City’s new town manager will begin his tenure on May 16, but you’ll forgive Hank Raper if one of the items on his to-do list is getting on good terms with his governmental counterparts over in Pittsboro.

That’s where his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor both work. Former Siler City Town Manager Roy Lynch left Siler City to become Chatham County’s county finance director earlier this year; Lynch had replaced Bryan Thompson, now serving as assistant county manager.

Given Chatham’s rapid growth and the role Raper thinks Siler City will play in it, he says it just makes sense to be in touch.

“We really are at the forefront, in Siler City, in Pittsboro, at the county,” Raper told the News + Record. “There’s a tremendous amount of economic development, opportunity and residential growth. And it’s going to take collaboration and partnership between each of us to make sure that we maximize that potential we have for our area. There are areas all over the state that would be envious of the opportunity we have in front of us here in Siler City. And we’re not going to squander it. We’re going to work together and get the absolute best result we can for our businesses and our residents.”

Raper, 33, comes to Siler City from the town manager post in Fairmont — a town of about 2,700 people in Robeson County, not far off I-95 south of Fayetteville — where he’s worked since March of last year. The Danville, Virginia, native leaves Fairmont after just over a year there; Fairmont’s mayor, Charles Kemp, called Raper’s departure “a great loss for us.”

“I know we made the right decision at the time we hired him,” Kemp was quoted in The Robesonian newspaper when Raper announced he was leaving for Siler City. “I have never met anybody in government that I have learned more from.”

Kemp particularly cited Raper’s work on a downtown revitalization project and zoning.

“I see him going further and doing great things in his career, and I wish him well,” Kemp said.

And he’s no stranger to Chatham County, having served an internship — working on projects like stormwater management — with the town of Pittsboro during his college days at N.C. State.

He says he couldn’t be more excited.

Raper, who was hired in Fairmont at a salary of $63,000, will be paid $123,800 annually as Siler City’s town manager. Former Town Manager Roy Lynch was paid $106,244 per year before taking a position as Chatham County’s finance director earlier this year.

Raper has a bachelor’s degree in public administration and social science history from Campbell University, earned a Master of Public Administration from N.C. State in 2013, and a Juris Doctor from Campbell University School of Law in 2015. He said his experience as a certified budget and evaluation officer, certified zoning official and certified local government finance officer — as well as an attorney — makes him well suited for a town like Siler City.

“I think it’s critical that someone who’s going to be the manager of a smaller municipality be a ‘jack of all trades,’” he said. “I want to be able to empower the employees and help give them the resources they need to be successful. I think it’s really helpful as a manager to be able to have some in-depth knowledge of a variety of different service areas — not to circumvent them, by any means, but to be a helpful part of the team and have something to contribute.”

In making the announcement about Raper’s hiring, Siler City Commissioner Chip Price said, “We are extremely pleased to have someone of Hank’s professionalism, capabilities and experience as our next town manager.”

Raper’s hiring does indeed come at a period of unprecedented growth for Chatham County. Neighborhoods are now being built in Chatham Park in Pittsboro and more jobs are coming — from the $4 billion VinFast automotive plant announced March 29 at Triangle Innovation Point near Moncure and FedEx’s announcement of a 338,000-sq.-ft. distribution center nearby. Siler City’s own Chatham Advanced Manufacturing megasite continues to draw major interest from companies, and local economic development officials say the site’s first tenant announcement could come very soon.

As a municipal administrator, Raper said he’d been aware of Chatham County’s growth potential for some time.

“I’ve had my eye on Siler City for a few years now — if that opportunity was going to make itself available,” he said. “I think it’s in the right location at the right time, with the right opportunity to really boom in the next few years. And I can’t express how excited I am to be a part of that opportunity to work with a tremendous staff and the board and to get to know the citizens in the Siler City community.”

In addition to his work in Fairmont, Raper also served as a consultant for the city of Fayetteville for a period of seven months, where he worked on a number of projects to help administration shore up problems in its public works department.

He also served as the town manager in Nashville, where he worked nearly three years until he was fired from his position on June 1, 2018. Raper’s tenure in Nashville ended after a months-long controversy involving a local family’s attempt in January 2018 to have a family member buried in a town-maintained cemetery.

The family couldn’t prove ownership of a plot in the cemetery, Raper said, and he and Linda Modlin, the town’s finance director — who served as the cemetery’s administrator — turned down the family’s request for burial.

That angered one of the family members, whom Raper said “got ballistic” at Nashville’s town hall, making threats.

“It was just really out of control,” he said. “And I had to ask them to leave town hall. I told him [the family member] all I need you to do is just show me some paperwork that will basically say you own this plot and we can move forward with this. They said they were not willing to do that.”

Raper said he briefed town commissioners about the incident and nothing further happened until the board’s April meeting, where some of the same family members — supported by others in the audience — showed up to make complaints about Raper and his treatment of them. Raper said he was instructed by town commissioners to hold his ground.

“The board just tells me to just leave it alone — don’t address it, that’s just going to make it worse, just let it blow over,” he said.

But family members continued to attend town board meetings and budget work sessions over the next two months, speaking out during public comment periods and making accusations about Raper.

“They said several things that were factually incorrect,” he said. “We had done everything we can to accommodate them. But I can’t just give someone property they don’t own.”

Raper said the board ultimately came to him to say that “someone’s going to have to fall on the sword for this to kind of quell the crowd.” The board asked him to terminate Modlin and make her the “scapegoat.”

“You know, I was just put in a very tenuous situation where I was told, ‘Somebody’s going to fall on the sword for this,’” he recalls the town’s board telling him. “’And we’d rather it be her than you.’”

Raper refused. Ultimately both he and Modlin were terminated.

At the time, the Nashville Graphic newspaper, in its coverage of the story, quoted Nashville Councilman Larry Taylor in a story as saying “it was the first time in his tenure on the board he’d seen the council meeting attending by so many citizens. He said he hoped the most recent circumstances proved to citizens that the board listened to its constituents.”

“When you show up and speak your mind and tell us what’s going on in town and give us your concerns, we do listen,” Taylor was quoted as saying.

A local television station broke the news by saying that recent Nashville town council meetings “have been met with an unusual throng of attendance and emotional appeals to the council regarding incidents related to the town cemetery and other experiences with the town’s administration.”

Raper looks back on the situation and said he was “very uncomfortable” with his board’s request to fire Modlin, whom he said acted appropriately during the brouhaha and “tried to bend over backward” to help the family.

Not firing Modlin was “the most consequential decision that I’ve had to make in my career,” he said. But it’s one he said he would make “100 times out of 100,” even though he paid a substantial professional price for it in the short term.

“You know, at the end of my career, I’ll probably look back and say that’s probably the most important decision that I’ve made,” he said. “I just believe in treating all employees the same, all the way down to the maintenance worker — if you’re doing the job right, then I’ll go to the mat and fight for you.”

Raper said Nashville paid a price as well. After Modlin’s departure, the town had a series of interim finance directors and was placed on the Local Government Commission’s watchlist because of late audit reports and concerns over financial practices dating back to the period after Raper left.

“You know, I will say that’s probably attributable to the fact that they just missed the leadership, and did not have people in place that kept things going,” he said. “There’s consequences all the way around when you make decisions like that.”

Raper says he plans to move from his home in Pembroke to Siler City by the time he begins work.

“I am deeply humbled and honored to be afforded the opportunity to serve the town of Siler City in this capacity,” he said. “ … it’s my steadfast commitment to be an effective team leader and continue to build on the success of those dedicated professionals who have come before me in service to their community.”

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