Just 12 people attended the opening interview session for city manager by the Flagler Beach City Commission at 1:30 this afternoon, the first of three that altogether lasted until 4:30. The opening session was for Caryn Miller’s interview. The audience grew to 19 for Michael Evans, and 20 for Bruce Campbell. All three candidates either work for the city or live in it. The questions were neither difficult nor unpredictable, as each candidate got pretty much the same fare the others did: why seek the position? What would be your priorities? Your temperament? Your management style? Your attitude toward transparency?
Remarkably, and other than questions about the city’s budget and one or two other similarly specific matters, the questions were almost all general–the kind of questions that could be posed of any manager applying anywhere in the country, rather than questions tailored specifically for the next Flagler Beach city manager. At no point were any of the candidates in the least surprised by any of the questions they were fed during each 45-minute segment.
Miller is the city’s community redevelopment director. Campbell works for the city as a building maintenance worker. Evans lives in Flagler Beach, but works for the Florida Agriculture Museum. None of the candidates sat in the room while another was being interviewed, though the candidates had the right to do so.
City Commissioner Ron Vath, who has all but vanished since mid-August, was not in the room, nor was he on the phone, nor had he sent in questions by email, as he had suggested to the city clerk he might do the previous evening. Vath’s absence means that he may not be able to participate in further interviews, and that the final vote of the commission, once it’s ready to pick a manager, will have to be unanimous: all four commissioners will have to agree on their pick.
It is still possible that Vath re-insinuate himself into the proceedings, especially if the commission decides to re-interview some candidates. Commission Chairman John feind will ask the city attorney whether Vath can re-enter the process by listening th the interviews or reading transcripts.
But by then the list will have already been pared down (from seven remaining candidates), and Vath’s involvement would create an irregularity the commission hasn’t dealt with previously. Vath has refused to explain his absence or set a term to it. The commission, itself without explaining the commissioner’s absence—or asking for an explanation, at least openly—has excused him, thus enabling him to keep his seat for now. According to the city’s charter, a commissioner forfeits his seat after missing three consecutive meetings.
First up on today’s interviewing line-up was Caryn Miller, the city’s director of redevelopment, who lives in DeLand. Three more candidates had been scheduled until one of them pulled out.
Noting two weaknesses, Miller said she has sometimes find it difficult to find the right balance between work and family, and has had difficulties delegating, rather than taking on work herself. Asked how she would separate herself from her current role as community redevelopment director, she said that would not be necessary. One of Miller’s selling points to the city is a cost-saving. She wants to be both manager and community redevelopment director, saving the city the charge of two top salaries.
As would later candidates, Miller spoke from a desk to the left of the commissioners’ dais—the same desk City Clerk Penny Overstreet occupies and where staffers, like Miller, take a seat when they’re addressing commission issues during meetings. So for Miller it was like having that added benefit of home-field advantage: she was comfortable, poised, and seemed no more and no less nervous than when she discusses redevelopment issues.
Commissioner Joy McGrew, who, along with Steve Settle, had short-listed Miller, asked her about changing roles from employee to manager. Miller said she’d spoken to all the department heads, “I was encouraged by all the department heads to go ahead and do it,” she said. “It’s going to be a little difficult at first, but I don’t think it’s going to be much of a problem because we work as a team now, we’ll work as a team then.” She added: “the best ideas usually come from staff.”
How would she keep up the level of services the city has come to expect in times when revenue and tax valuations keep dropping? “Efficiencies within the city,” was Miller’s answer. One example, drawn from an article she’d read about a city manager elsewhere: hold a town meeting to hear what services the public finds more critical than others before deciding which to pare down.
Settle asked Miller what salary range she expected—an unusual question at this stage of the proceedings. Miller termed it not prudent to base a hiring decision on salaries, though she was prepared to give figures. Settle, in a slight retreat, said he was just pulling the question from a manual.
John Feind asked her what she thought of Amendment 4, the so-called “hometown democracy” proposal to amend the constitution and prevent changes to local governments’ development plan without prior voter approval. “Bad,” Miller said. “It’s bad for local governments all the way around.”
In 2001, Michael Evans ran for the Flagler Beach City Commission and won, with 601 votes, defeating Vath. Evans was short-listed by commissioners Jane Mealy, McGrew and Settle, though the interview may have been little more than a courtesy call by the commission: Evans is a friend of McGrew’s, and it was at McGrew’s pharmacy that he heard the job was open. He’s never run a city. He’s been a state park manager for two decades and a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves, serving in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He also worked for 27 days at Target recently, but couldn’t fold towels the right way. He’s currently a volunteer interpreter and operations manager at the Florida Agricultural Museum.
When McGrew (who gave Evans a hug after his interview) referred to him as a “good ol’ Southern boy” and asked him how he’d react to being perceived as a “colloquial” kind of “jokester,” Evans answered: “People are just going to have to know me. They’re going to have to experience me. This is the way I operate.” Several times during the interview he’d candidly spoken about his bluntness and occasionally confrontational nature, saying that people have also referred to him as “the biggest SOB there is.”
With his scant—or rather nonexistent—experience in municipal management, Evans was asked by Mealy what made him think he could be a city manager in Flagler Beach. Evans cited his experience working in state parks, where “you have to deal with a wide range of folks. Sometimes it’s like trying to herd cats.”
Evans described himself as “flexible,” a “people person,” as someone who “tried to be a leader,” and someone who talks to people to get things done. “Don’t get me wrong,” he added, “I’ve been confrontational in my days.” When Settle asked him what kind of temperament he’d bring to the city as a manager, Evans said: “I believe in stating my case. I’m very blunt at times.” But he added, “patience and compassion still backed up by a sense of we’re going to get things done, goes a long way.”
“If I don’t like the way a situation is going, I would tell you. In my younger days I would probably get myself thrown out of the building,” Evans said, but he’s more tempered these days. “Sometimes I can still be a bit blunt and to the point,” he said. When things left festering, “I have a tendency to get a little irritated.” He added: “Sometimes I’m anal. I have to hold back sometimes.”
Evans referred to commissioner Feind familiarly as “John.” Feind was elected to fill the seat Evans did not run for in 2003. Back then, Evans served on the commission only a few months. In September 2001, he was called to the Air Force. He offered his resignation to the commission but was turned down. “Did I miss a lot of meetings? You bet,” Evans said after his interview with commissioners. He ran again later in the decade but did not win.
Bruce Campbell has attended most meetings of the commission for months. His and Miller’s resume were the first to be turned into the pile that grew to 140. Campbell is also the only candidate who managed (without his intervention, he says) to benefit from what has amounted, literally, to a public campaign on his behalf from residents in Flagler Beach.
Campbell began his presentation with a long, discursive summary of his professional life in the private sector, speaking comfortably and affably, but also favoring technical language that made it difficult at times to know whether he was answering the question or couching it in opaque language. He was no more or less specific than his predecessors—just more wordy. But he was clearly more assertive and self-assured, rather like an executive used to getting his way.
Campbell seized on a question from Mealy to describe how he perceived the difference between private business, where he spent most of his life, and government.
“In the private sector there’s this thing called profit,” Campbell said, “and it’s a very strong economic motivator. In the public sector we have no such thing as profit. We’re not here for profitability. We’re here to serve the citizens. We’re here to make sure we have adequate service levels.” The closest thing to the private sector “is the price we’re going to ask our citizens to pay” through their billings for water and sewer or through their property taxes. But it wasn’t entirely clear at the end of his long answer whether he’d feel as comfortable managing a public entity as he did a private one. He repeatedly referred to taxpayers as “shareholders” and to employees as “associates,” terms obviously more at home in private industry than in government.
Campbell was heavy on wonkish, lingo-accented talk that, for long periods, could not have made much sense to the audience or to the commissioners. “I read a couple of books preparing for this,” he told them. “One of them was How To Make Government Accounting Easy.” But he also seized on questions more directly and enthusiastically than the two candidates before him, as if relishing the chance to talk public policy and managerial theory.
He conceded not knowing much about the municipal government despite watching it and studying it. He would break it down into its many component parts, meet the people who make those parts run, “and try to get my hands around it. I’ve got some ideas, I think there’s something that could be implemented rather quickly,” Evans said. But he said it’d be premature to state them. Within 45 to 60 days, however, he might reorganize the administration and bring proposals to the commission to seek its backing.
How would he change hats from employee to manager, McGrew asked him? Open doors and transparency, he said, but stressed: “You can’t be totally transparent at all times with every subject, even though we’re operating with public records and that sort of thing.” He would institute monthly birthday-cupcake meetings with “associates” to keep them “on board,” and looks forward to bi-annual town meetings with the citizenry, just as he did in private industry with his company’s employees.
He would build a network with Palm Coast, Bunnell, Ormond Beach and the county to lean who his peers are and what they have done successfully—or not. He said “all the answers aren’t in a calculator,” describing the “softer side of any organization,” involving “treating our people with respect and dignity, trying to be as transparent as you can, and I say as you can,” with taxpayers or employees. He did not specify how, though he noted being “more comfortable from an analytical standpoint” in his approach to work.
He was asked for his three priorities as manager. Number 1, Campbell said, he’s concerned about the budget being on an unsustainable course. He was on top of his figures, citing his awareness of the $9.8 million budget. But budget cuts would be necessary, what he called “non-linear improvements, cost improvements.” His proposal: shoot for 10 percent cost reductions, “get 5 to 8” percent, by involving “associates” (that is, employees) in figuring out how to reduce costs. Number 2 and 3 weren’t discussed. “You run out of time,” he said afterward. His interview was the longest of the three today.
An irony has shadowed Campbell since he applied for the job: what is an ostensibly overqualified former company president doing as a maintenance man in the city? Settle put it another way: “What do you want to do after this?” suggesting, only half jokingly, that the city manager’s gig would be yet another stepping stone.
“Well,” Campbell said, pausing a long time. “I mean, to be quite honest, the possibility of becoming the city manager of our city really excites me, and it gets me back to my core competencies. I mean, I didn’t come here to be a maintenance man.” He said he misses working with an organization, toward its goals, working with a plan that he can shepherd to its conclusion. “I spent 30 years doing that, and yeah it’s been kind of a diversion the last three” as a maintenance worker. “I’ve made a lot of real estate investments in our city. I’m not going anywhere.”
None of the commissioners asked him how he would deal with the potential for conflicts of interest—owning a lot of real estate in a city he could potentially manages, and therefore potentially affect the value of his holdings. Campbell said after the meeting that he holds five properties and serves as treasurer on a condo association in town. He would resign that position, he said.
Alone of the three candidates today, Campbell received a round of applause from the audience when the interview was done.