City officials and staffers aside, just 13 people turned up for a morning workshop intended to give Palm Coast residents a say in what sort of city manager they want. But that gave those 13–four of them from the Chamber of Commerce–an outsized voice in the coming choice.
The chamber’s Allen Goodman, for example, read an eight-point statement on behalf of the business organization, describing “characteristics that we believe should be sought in a new city manager,” that repeatedly sounded like what ex-Manager Jim Landon decidedly was not: “”Be willing to interact with the public directly.” “Friendly, approachable and humble.” “Someone who is passionate about building and sustaining partnerships-relationships with all constituents.” “Be transparent.” “Media savvy.” “Excellent communication skills.”
To be sure, the chamber’s list–introduced by John Subers, the chamber’s chairman and a senior executive at Florida Hospital Flagler–also included several qualities that described Landon, who developed a hyper-professional administration, was keen on Palm Coast’s history and was, at least for many of his 11 years here, goal-driven.
The discussion was general and in many ways unsurprising, shedding light on the routines and mechanics of searches most cities and counties go through when they’re seeking a manager. The signal difference in this case is that Palm Coast chose to use a search firm, Texas-based Strategic Government Resources. The Palm Coast City Council hired SGR for $12,000 to conduct the search and distill the list of applicants to those it considers most desirable for the city.
SGR will focus on three attributes in developing a match: “Clicking with the council, clicking with the organization and clicking with the community,” SGR vice president Doug Thomas, a former Lakeland city manager, said.
The council elected to hold two public-involvement workshops at City Hall–the second is scheduled for 6 pm this evening–led by Thomas, who recommended including such meetings in the process. It is the first time in Palm Coast’s three searches that the city has included that step, though this morning’s meeting recalled the dearth of public involvement when the council held a series of public workshops as part of reviewing its charter.
Two council members attended today’s morning session: Mayor Milissa Holland and council member Bob Cuff. Three staff members were present. The audience included a council candidate, a former council member, a former sheriff, a county commission candidate, four members of the chamber of commerce’s executive board, and a few council meeting regulars. The small turnout enabled a less formal approach that resembled more of a discussion between those in attendance and Thomas, who–47 minutes in–asked the assembly “what is it that you like” in the next manager.
That’s when Subers and others began offering their direct suggestions.
Moments later, Joe Mullins, a candidate for the county commission, asked for Thomas’s business card: “I have a feeling after Nov. 6 we might be calling on you to do the same thing on the county level,” Mullins said: Mullins has made no secret of wanting to fire County Administrator Craig Coffey. He has at least one additional vote to do so, but a third vote has been less certain so far.
Former Sheriff Jim Manfre also read a statement that on the whole echoed the chamber’s focus on communications, accountability and transparency. “Solutions rather than being presented as unilateral should be multilateral providing consensus building as a means to the best solution,” Manfre said. “It is impossible for elected officials to be conversant in all city matters so each should be assigned an area of expertise so that they are are proficient in that area on behalf of the council and public.”
Dave Ferguson, a former council member, spoke of his experience with Jacksonville, where he spent many years and where he saw young people leaving 35 years ago–the way they are leaving Palm Coast today. “The biggest issue is I think the vision statement of what Palm Coast wants to be when it grows up,” Ferguson said. People that started the community like it the way it used to be, not the way it’s going, he said. “You need somebody who understands that equation very well,” including constituencies that want to make the city more friendly for business and more friendly to millennials, without clogging the city’s streets with undue traffic.
The two council members did not interject at any point, other than when Holland introduced Thomas.
He said the search process will take three months, sharply contrasting with the council’s and administration’s assumptions, before Landon was fired–and when he was prolonging his undefined retirement plans–that the process could stretch over a year.
There will be no lack of candidates. “Florida is a desirable state despite the challenges I mentioned earlier about being advertised and being in the public eye,” Thomas said, referring to the way Florida’s open-records laws tend to make some candidates shy about applying: conversely, a lot of people like the low taxes and the absence of snow. But the number of candidates he expected was not necessarily high: “I’m assuming we’ll have 35-40 easily,” he said. But he recalled drawing 60 candidates for a recent search in Green Cove Springs. (Seven years ago Flagler Beach drew 70 applicants when it had a city manager opening, though the recession may have been padding the numbers.)
The position will be advertised in the municipal leagues and city and county managers’ association publications. There may be technology and innovation-based venues. SGR has its own “outreach network” that reaches 60,000 people across various sectors. The firm also has a dedicated social media specialist, adding another layer of outreach or advertising. Two-thirds of semi-finalists, many of them “passive” candidates who are not necessarily looking for a job, tend to be the most desirable ones who see one of any of those elements and who decide to apply. Thomas said fully 75 percent of applicants in general are “passive.”
Palm Coast has had just two managers in its 20-year history: Dick Kelton and Landon. That will work in the city’s favor during the search because applicants will see stability rather than mercurial tenures behind that history.
Shortly after the hour-mark of the meeting, the audience had shrunk to just four people, then to one. The meeting was scheduled for two hours. It was ended around the 90-minute mark.