Institutional Knowledge with Cal Horton, Part 1

Institutional Knowledge with Cal Horton, Part 1

As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, we are recording the wisdom and experience of retiring and retired leaders in local government. If you know someone who could add something to this project, let me know! You can reach out to me on TwitterLinkedIn or send me an email.


As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some incredible government leaders. It was a real treat to interview Cal Horton about his many years as a public servant. This is the first part of my interview.

Learn more about Cal Horton – The Takeaway with Cal Horton, Former Chapel Hill Town Manager and Guidepost #4 – Cal Horton, Town of Chapel Hill (NC)


Tell us about your career. 

My first work experience in local government was as a summer playground supervisor for the City of Raleigh, NC, recreation department, in 1965. I was fortunate to be a summer intern in the City of Charlotte, NC, personnel department in 1966 through a program initiated by city manager William J. Veeder.

Professor Donald B. Hayman, assistant director of the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, employed me as an undergraduate research assistant in my senior year at UNC, 1966-67.

From 1967-1974, I served in various positions in the City of Charlotte personnel department, gaining experience in compensation management, employee training and development, employee union negotiations, and budget analysis. Personnel director Robert A. Earle was a valuable mentor who trusted me with challenging opportunities. The City provided financial support and leave so that I could participate in the UNC-Chapel Hill Master of Public Administration program during 1971-72. I was a graduate research assistant to Professor Donald Hayman during this period.

My best friend, G. Curtis Branscome, offered me the post of assistant city manager of Decatur, GA, in 1974. When Charlotte city manager David Burkhalter, learned that I would be accepting the job, he said: “Friends usually are not successful in working together; but you and Curtis are so brutally honest with each other that I think you might make it work.” We were brutally honest with each other and worked together successfully for the next 15 years. It is fair to say, I believe, that our efforts laid the foundation for what Decatur is today. We worked with a truly collegial group of professionals to restore the community’s sense of psychological identification by rebuilding public infrastructure, eliminating blighted housing, providing excellent city services, and promoting economic development.

I moved to Chapel Hill as public safety director in 1989, working for city manager David A. Taylor and providing leadership for fire, police, transit, and risk management services. Dave retired and I was appointed town manager in 1990. I remained in that post until my own retirement in 2016. The primary interests of the Town Councils with whom I served were to manage growth, ensure that development met the high standards of the community, provide the consistently excellent services expected by Chapel Hill citizens, and to do so for a reasonable cost. The work was made even more interesting by complex intergovernmental relationships with the University of North Carolina, the Town of Carrboro, and Orange County.

In 2002, Professor David Ammons invited me to be a co-teacher of his course in city and county management, offered in the Master of Public Administration program at UNC. It was a great pleasure to do so. I worked with David and, later, Professor Carl Stenberg on courses in city and county management and local government service delivery until I fully retired in 2008.

What was your favorite job during your career?

I was lucky and, in retrospect, I also made fortunate choices. I worked only in good communities, in good organizations, in good jobs, with good people who predominantly had good values. I had favorite moments in every job; and, I had some unpleasant times, as well. But, it was almost always interesting.

What I enjoyed the most about all of my jobs was working with collaborative teams of employees, public officials, and community leaders to attain difficult objectives that served the community. This kind of shared success created a level of camaraderie that was at times exhilarating.

I suppose that my favorite job was serving as town manager of Chapel Hill. All of us have the power to do good, wherever we are, whatever our circumstance; but, I enjoyed an enhanced power to do good while serving as town manager of Chapel Hill. It was in the nature of the position and because of the character of the community. Chapel Hill was expected to lead the way, especially on difficult issues and during difficult times, and the manager was expected to play a lead role in addressing challenges and solving problems.

Which job was the most challenging? 

Serving as the town manager of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill is a university community with a large population of highly educated people who believe in and practice civic engagement. They care. They care deeply and broadly and consistently. Town Council meetings are considered an appropriate forum for any issue of concern to any citizen. Good ideas and sound arguments – regardless of source – are prized above authority and position. No decision is so final that it cannot be reversed, overturned, undone, modified, refined, reconsidered, or at least lamented and held up as an example for future avoidance.

Helping the Council manage and be responsive in such a public forum was challenging both intellectually and emotionally. When multiple meetings ran until after midnight, it also was physically challenging.

Tell us about a time that you learned a difficult lesson on the job.

 I never thought of lessons as difficult, just valuable. However, your question prompts recollection of one incident. I allowed a department head to prolong consideration of a disciplinary investigation of one of his employees beyond a reasonable limit. The department head had earned my confidence over a long period of time based on exemplary conduct and leadership. I did not realize until too late that he probably had a bias against the particular employee that was clouding his judgment and delaying conclusion. Undoing the harm caused by his delay was problematic, embarrassing, and unnecessarily expensive.


Have you learned something new as part of your career in local government? Or do you know someone who has had an outstanding career in local government? We want to hear about it! Contact Jacob Johnson to nominate someone for the #InstitutionalKnowledge series: Twitter | LinkedIn email