WINCHESTER — Five months after telling The Winchester Star, “I can’t imagine living and working anywhere else,” City Manager Eden Freeman is leaving Winchester to become deputy city manager of Greenville, South Carolina.
The surprise announcement came late Thursday afternoon, two days after three local residents asked City Council to investigate Freeman’s oversight of the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department.
In a telephone interview, Freeman said the potential investigation had no bearing on her decision to leave.
“You get to a point in your career where you realize what’s important to you,” she said. “It was simply time for a change, and Greenville is a beautiful city.”
Freeman said her top priority is being closer to her parents, both of whom are in their 70s and living in Georgia. She is an only child and said it’s difficult being 12 hours away from them. Greenville is just a three-hour drive from their home.
Freeman learned there was an opening in Greenville shortly after her former boss, John McDonough, became its city manager in August. She will once again be reporting to McDonough, just as she did when he was city manager of Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Freeman was working as assistant city manager in Sandy Springs prior to coming to Winchester on July 21, 2014. Her starting base salary as city manager was $145,000, which has since climbed to $175,760.
She became Winchester’s fourth city manager in a six-and-a-half-year period, and City Council wanted her to stick around longer than her predecessors. They offered her a $25,000 bonus if she stayed on the job for five years, which she collected in July and invested into her retirement plan.
“She brought stability to the city at a time we really needed it,” said council member John Willingham, who was City Council president when the board hired Freeman. “She definitely made a positive impact on the city.”
“I have been very proud to work side by side with Ms. Freeman, and I am grateful for the lasting impact she has made on me, in the city and to all the people who were lucky enough to really get to know her,” Mayor David Smith, council’s current president, said in a media release. “She is a strong, intelligent, resilient and upstanding woman who will be successful wherever she goes because of her unwavering dedication to public service and doing what is right and ethical.”
During her five-and-a-half years in Winchester, Freeman and her staff reported several prestigious achievements, including:
Earning a AAA bond rating three times.
Developing a significantly revised and expanded strategic plan.
Buying a ladder truck, the first city-owned fire-fighting apparatus.
Renovating Rouss City Hall and the Joint Judicial Center, and buying the Creamery Building to expand local government offices.
Installing a roundabout on National Avenue.
“I am very, very proud of all the accomplishments we have made over the years,” Freeman said.
She added that public safety was her primary concern, so she strived to provide the resources needed to protect Winchester and its citizens. An example, Freeman said, was increasing the Fire and Rescue Department’s budget by 30% during her tenure.
However, she has not been popular among Winchester’s volunteer and career firefighters and paramedics, who have blamed Freeman’s interference for causing employee dissatisfaction and a high number of staff departures.
On Tuesday, three supporters of the Fire and Rescue Department spoke at City Council’s business meeting and called for an investigation into Freeman’s management of the department and its chief, William Garrett. One of the speakers was Stephanie Binotto, a paramedic who resigned from the department in December after 10 years of service to the city.
“She has crippled the department and its personnel to the point that the community is no longer safe,” Binotto told council.
Willingham said on Thursday he would not discuss the calls for an investigation, but noted, “[Freeman] was in extremely good standing with council. ... Being a city manager is always going to be a difficult position.”
Milt McInturff, a former City Council member who publicly criticized Freeman on numerous occasions, said he suspects her recent run-ins with the Fire and Rescue Department played a bigger role in her decision to leave than she’s willing to admit.
“Some of the things that have been going on this past year finally caught up to her,” McInturff said on Thursday. “She stayed around to get her $25,000 bonus. Does this really surprise anyone?”
Freeman was the subject of another investigation following the Nov. 7, 2017 general election. In that case, she was accused of funneling information to Democrat Addie Lingle, who was challenging incumbent Republican Ann Burkholder to become Winchester’s commissioner of the revenue. Burkholder was re-elected, and City Council absolved Freeman of any wrongdoing.
On Feb. 14, Freeman suffered the tragic loss of her partner of 15 years, Charles Christopher “Charlie” Robertson III, who died unexpectedly. Freeman was grieving while simultaneously preparing the city’s annual budget for fiscal year 2020.
Freeman’s last day in Winchester will be on March 16, meaning she won’t be here when City Council votes on the fiscal year 2021 budget in April or May.
She starts her new job in Greenville on March 23, but declined to disclose her initial salary.
Council will now start the process of finding Freeman’s successor, a nationwide search that will likely take several months.
“I have offered to help in any way to ease the transition,” Freeman said.