NC: Tom Bonfield, City of Durham City Manager

Posted on August 19, 2014

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Fifty Nifty Takeaways

What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.

Our Take on North Carolina


The 50 Nifty returns to the Old North State. Per the recommendation of Ron Holifield, Strategic Government Resources and John Allore, Durham Assistant Director, Budget and Management Services, we sought out Tom Bonfield for his take on local government in North Carolina. In the course of researching Tom, we realized that Tom was drafted by the New York Yankees. It’s safe to say this is the first New York Yankee to participate in the 50 Nifty, although maybe Derek Jeter will have time to participate after his retirement.

Previous 50 Nifty profiles in North Carolina include Eric Peterson, Town of Hillsborough, Town ManagerTom Lundy, Catawba County, County Manager, and Mitchell Silver, City of Raleigh and American Planning Association. Before we hear from Tom, let’s get background on North Carolina.

andy-shockedThe Old North State is home to Andy Griffin, Michael Jordan, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Pepsi, and Krispy Kreme. The unofficial song of North Carolina is “Carolina on My Mind” by James Taylor, right? Not necessarily, some newer North Carolina residents might point to “Raise Up” by Petey Pablo. The rapper spends most of the song naming the many small cities and towns in North Carolina. Who knew Petey Pablo was so civic minded!

North Carolina is a strong proponent of the council-manager form of government. It’s largest cities Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville, and Winston-Salem all employ a city manager. An MPA is almost as common as an MBA in North Carolina with more than 10 schools offering an MPA.

Unfortunately, a well educated workforce does not completely eliminate bad laws from being passed, as evident by these:

  • Asheville:  If you have to sneeze you better not do it on a city street! Sneezing on city streets is illegal.
  • Charlotte: Women must have their bodies covered by at least 16 yards of cloth at all times.
  • Kill Devil Hills: You may not ride a bicycle without having both your hands on the handle bars.
  • Rocky Mount: It is required that you must pay a property tax on your dog.
  • Greensboro: Restaurants “with on sidewalk dining” must post their menu so that it is clearly readable from the sidewalk, but is not readable from the street.

Background Check on Tom


Tom Bonfield has served in local government for more than 30 years, including 25 years managing cities. He served as the City Manager of Temple Terrace for thirteen years and Pensacola for ten years, prior to joining Durham in 2008. 

Tom Bonfield received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from St. Leo University, after which he was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1977. He went on to earn an MBA from the University of South Florida. 

Background Check on Durham


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Durham (population: 233,252)  is the fourth-largest city in North Carolina, and the 85th-largest in the United States by population. Duke University and Duke University Health System are Durham’s largest employers. 

Durham operates under a council-manager government. The mayor, since 2001, is Bill Bell, who was most recently reelected in 2011 with 82% of the vote in a runoff election. The seven-member City Council is the primary budgetary and lawmaking authority.

In recent years the city of Durham has stepped up revitalization of its downtown and undergone an economic and cultural renaissance of sorts. Partnering with developers from around the world, the city continues to promote the redevelopment of many of its former tobacco districts, projects supplemented by the earlier construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center and new Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The American Tobacco Historic District, adjacent to both the athletic park and performing arts center, is one such project, having successfully lured a number of restaurants, entertainment venues, and office space geared toward hi-tech entrepreneurs, investors, and startup.

Notables from Durham

  • David Gergen, advisor to presidents Ford, Reagan, and Clinton
  • LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band, Contemporary jazz musician
  • Don Schlitz, Songwriter (Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler”)
  • Andre Leon Talley, Vogue editor, fashion luminary, and current judge of ANTM
  • John Lucas II, NBA player and coach

Lightning Round


Best piece of advice from your parents.

Have a positive attitude, smile, and be humble.

In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party?



Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  The group would play one set then each artist would play a solo set.  Their music had a social conscience which is missing from music today.

(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to…

…. be a grandfather…that my grandkids remember.

Three most influential books in your

“The Bible”

“This City This Man”


If you could FaceTime with five people (dead or alive and not including family members), who would be on the list?

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Pope Francis
  • Gandhi
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Describe the inside of your car.

Functional, moderately clean, and cloth grocery bags in back seat.  I am not a car person.

What’s the meaning of life?

A preparation for spiritual life after human death.

Q & A with Tom


Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in your state.

  • Restricted by State Government
  • Council-Manager
  • Dramatically different

imagesWe’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? What was your first local government job? How did you end up in local government?

At 12, I wanted to either by a professional baseball player or an astronaut.  My first local government job was a grants coordinator and accountant.  I ended up becoming a city manager instead of going to law school because an early mentor told me there were already too many lawyers.

Editor’s Note: Tom was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 23rd round of the 1977 MLB June Amateur Draft from St. Leo College (St. Leo, FL)

Give us your top three career accomplishments.

  • Helping to transform the City of Durham’s organizational culture.
  • Developing a financial model and negotiating thirty year management/lease agreements to sustain, including repair and capital replacement, for highly successful performance arts center, and AAA baseball stadium, without relying on property tax revenues for support.

We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.

On two different occasions as manager I did not push the elected body hard enough on bad decisions they were about to make. One decision worked itself out but took five years.  The other decision still is detrimental to the community eight years later.

Our experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”. Has this been your experience?


I suppose.  After 37 years my kids still think all I do all day is go to meetings and sit in front of the computer and send emails!

How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?

Tell stories every chance you can and look for ways to be more transparent.

Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government?

Definitely.  While other careers may be more fun or prosperous at the end it will be difficult to look back at most careers and say the work really mattered or made a difference like a career in local government can.

Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good (1)

  • Show a passion for public service
  • Can think not just do
  • Embrace ambiguity

Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.

Some early mentors were Picot Floyd, Ellis Shapiro and Bruce Haddock but I probably have learned as much of more from peers such as Katy Simon, Bob O’Neill, Jim Keane, Jim Spore, and many others.

(Complete the sentence) In 2018, local government will be ……

…… “continuing to look for ways to engage citizens and pay for everything people want but don’t want to be taxed for.”

What question(s) should we have asked you?

What is the gutsiest decision you ever made? (let me know if you want an answer!)

Supplemental Reading


50 Nifty Profiles

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