The Bunnell City Commission Monday evening voted 4-1 to negotiate a contract with Alvin Jackson, the economic development director in Suwanee County and a preacher in his spare time, to be its next city manager. They did so despite questions about Jackson’s resume and his documented tendency to inflate accomplishments.
When Commissioner John Rogers tried to hire him following Jackson’s first interview in June, Rogers got no second. Jackson interviewed again last week. This time, Rogers will negotiate the contract with him. Elbert Tucker was the lone dissenter in the vote.
Commissioners have been seeking a manager since firing Dan Davis in April. They drew just 24 applicants in two rounds of application seeking. They held two rounds of interviews and came close to hiring a manager in late June, but that fell apart, leading to the second round of interviews.
Jackson was the only candidate interviewed twice. He was selected ahead of Lawrence McNaul, Rodney Lucas and Phyllis Marshall-Hartman.
Jackson’s first interview had turned off Commissioners Tucker, Bill Baxley and John Sowell, either because he came across as too flashy or because his novella-length resume (his application package totaled 72 pages) was somewhat deceptive: his master’s and doctorate were from a defunct, non-accredited school in Jacksonville.
But Jackson is an accomplished schmoozer and self-advertiser: it’s one of the reasons commissioners are hiring him. He started his first interview by distributing copies of his self-published book to the commissioners. After his interview, he spoke with individual commissioners at length, particularly Sowell and Mayor Catherine Robinson. He met Sowell for what was to be a 90-minute lunch. It lasted five and a half hours. By the end, Sowell, who had been bothered by Jackson’s resume deception, was sold. “He didn;t oversell himself, he just talked ideas, city business,” Sowell said this morning, explaining his vote for Jackson. “The guy knows his stuff. He really does.”
What of the resume issue? “It’s thoroughly out there for the public to know,” Sowell said. “I hired him on his bachelor’s degree.” He added, “ Everybody when they apply for a job try to sell themselves one way or another. I think in the beginning he tried to oversell himself.”
The decibel meter in Jackson’s first interview was noticeably higher than it was in his second, when he presented himself more calmly, more deliberately, though still speaking in incredibly long, discursive answers that could take up five, six, seven, eight minutes at a time, looping from one idea to another through many subplots that were not always necessarily connected but, as with any salesmen, always underscored what he projected as his strengths. But it was not always clear what he meant: his answers were strong on the usual words and phrases of economic development (“opportunity,” “synergy,” “logistics” but short on focus and connection between those words and the reality on the ground in Bunnell.
Schmoozing commissioners behind the scenes pays off for Alvin Jackson.
When Sowell during the second public interview asked him to list three economic development possibilities, Jackson listed as assets U.S. 1, I-95, the Florida East Coast Railway line, which does not stop in Bunnell, and land. “Not quite sure where the infrastructure is, the extent of the infrastructure, that would be the next thing we would look at,” he said. He then said “distribution” and “logistics” would be a “great opportunity,” though he explained neither. “You sit in the center of opportunity,” he said, with Daytona Beach “moving north” and St. Augustine “moving south.” He then spoke of “limited manufacturing opportunities, not megafirms that, what I call boutique firms.” He then talked about synergy and how each of those firms would have suppliers who would see “what a great community this is.” He referred to housing a couple of times, and “regions you can pull from” as assets. He then talked about festivals, referring to the now-defunct Bunnell Potato Festival. “The potato festival, I think that’s an opportunity, not just to come here and eat potatoes, but Let’s talk about potatoes, let’s talk about the health benefits, turn it into a health festival, those are the kinds of opportunities I think you have here because you have a population base that basically would support that.”
His first answer of the interview had been stronger regarding festivals, though it went back to what he said he’d accomplished some 30 years ago in Eatonville, when he said it hired him as city manager in 1988 (though the Orlando Sentinel in a 1989 story refers to him as an “administrative assistant,” before that year referring to that town as “turmoil-filled Eatonville”–so much turmoil that then Mayor James Williams was elected on a promise to unify the city.)
“Historic preservation can be an excellent vehicle for economic development,” Jackson told the Bunnell commissioners. Eatonville had suffered under the urban renewal years, which demolished much of its historic district. “I was challenged with what vehicle can I come up with,” he said, so he worked with a congressman–whose name he could not remember–a state legislator, and a community activist and librarian to discuss possibilities. The librarian’s book club was reading Zora Neale Hurtson at the time. Hurston didn’t have a particularly good reputation in town at the time, according to Jackson, but with the emergence of Alice Walker and “The Color Purple,” Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” her most famous work, “became a very hot commodity.”
“At that point, we said that we have a vehicle. We have Zora Neale Hurston, and we started the Zora Neale Hurston festival back in 1988 as a vehicle for eco development.” (It started in 1990.) “Now, this wasn’t your typical, cut the barbecue, have a parade, have balloons. We needed an economic engine. So what we did is we determined it needed to be a literary festival, because a literary festival would actually bring individuals to the community that had money. And the first year, we had 15,000 [people], Alice Walker was our keynote speaker, and it began to do what we wanted it to do. It is still going on.” The festival has since seen the appearances of Maya Angelou, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Amiri Baraka and Danny Glover, among others.
“Eatonville cannot even hold a million people, but that’s who comes to that festival from all over the world,” Jackson said, “and they sit and discuss chapter of her books, ph.d. Type.” (The festival’s website says it has attracted 1.5 million people over the past three decades combined.) “So that festival is truly an economic boom, so when I’m looking at festivals I’m looking at not only the fun aspects but basically how can it bring individuals into our community to spend money, to stay in hotels, to basically have an economic boom.”
He said he started an international folk festival in Eustis as well, though the Sentinel at the time–in 1993–specified who filled what roles, when Jackson was director of human services in Eustis: “Although Jackson was in charge of securing the grant and looking for sponsors, the festival is put together by Sandra Green, director of recreational services in Eustis. Green said she and several friends began the festival about five years ago ‘to be able to give ethnic groups the opportunity to share the richness of their culture with the community.’”
After one of Jackson’s discursive accounts of what he could accomplish, Tucker, who has an understated skill for cutting irony, attempted to bring him back to Bunnell: “Dr. Jackson I know you have a broad horizon to pull from, it sounds like you’ve done well” Tucker said. “But relative to the city of Bunnell, city manager has to do with helping the directors, budget, and, you know, those trivialities you have to deal with. So are you going to be able to do that for the city of Bunnell?”
“Yeah, well, let me say this,” Jackson said, answering again by referring to his ability to bring economic development, but also “operational abilities. Basically, from the staff standpoint, I want to grow and create a dynamic team. And how do you do that? One, being very clear on the vision which you have to set, and I have to articulate that down to every staff person.” The answer was culled from a standard how-to book on management–all seven candidates who interviewed answered the question with similar pledges–but did not directly answer Tucker’s concern about Bunnell: before long, he was again talking about “branding” Bunnell and having “face time” in Tallahassee, as long as he had a “dynamic team” back at the office.
Tucker seemed concerned about Jackson’s focus on the job in Bunnell, as opposed to Jackson’s broader aims–what Jackson kept referring to as “doing economic development.”
“We’re not going to have to hire an assistant manager to take care of the day to day stuff that perhaps I would think a manager would do, you’re king of stepping out of that role into some other role,” Tucker said.
“That’s what the training does, the training helps all of us take responsibility” as a team, Jackson said, with each individual on the team bringing expertise to the table “collectively.”
“Okay,” Tucker said, noticeably accenting the first syllable and ending his line of questions. The accent presaged his No vote Monday evening.