Palm Coast City Council members this week put down their markers regarding the sort of city manager they want to hire more clearly than they have in the months they’ve been talking about it. At least a few sharp lines and differences were drawn between council members, and they had nothing to do with the two members who joined the council last month.
Rather, the differences were between the approach of Mayor Milissa Holland and Council member Bob Cuff: she wants a radical break from predictable, cookie-cutter candidates, he wants someone who can “make the trains run on time.” (Cuff was satisfied with ex-Manager Jim Landon in that regard. Holland was not.) She wants a hiring process rigidly controlled by the council, with little to no interaction with city staff in so far as candidates are concerned. Cuff sees the interaction as essential, because he wants his staff’s feedback in that regard. And Holland wants every part of the process to be open and transparent. Cuff in the past had no opposition to one-on-one meetings with candidates.
For Cuff and Holland, who ran as allies two years ago, the differences appear to modulate or round the edges of each of their positions rather than alienate either from the other, producing a pragmatic synthesis in the search method their head-hunter is implementing. But it’s no less clear that Cuff does not intend to yield to Holland rather than check and balance her strong approach, if with none of the gruffness and irritability–or unpredictability–with which former council member Steven Nobile used to disagree with colleagues.
The help-wanted ad for a new manager went live this week and will be up for the next 30 days–running into the thick of the holiday season. That starts a clock that should wind down with a new manager sometime in late winter or early spring. Council members discussed the process at their meeting Tuesday. The new council members–Jack Howell and Eddie Branquinho–contributed little, spending most of the time listening and offering only passing thoughts.
Doug Thomas, senior vice president of Strategic Government Resources, the head-hunting firm Palm Coast hired, led the discussion, but it was framed by Holland and Cuff, and, to a surprising extent, by Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey: he wasn’t there, but going through the steps of hiring him in 2007, when she was a county commissioner, so colored Holland’s experience with the process that she was still smarting from it, and reacting in opposition to it with regards to how she wants the Palm Coast manager’s hire to go. (She had voted against hiring Coffey.) Cuff, of course, never knew Coffey and has never gone through a municipal executive’s hire.
One of the questions Holland asked candidates in the county process, she recalled to her council colleagues, was “what do you know about me.” The response from one of the candidates–who turned out to be Coffey–was: “I heard you were high maintenance.” The line has stuck with Holland over the years. Holland told the story at Tuesday’s meeting without attaching a name to it. She was reacting to one of Thomas’s proposals that the short-listed candidates for city manager be given the opportunity to tour city facilities, perhaps with city staff, to get to know staffers and get a feel for what’s ahead.
Holland was opposed to that approach. She described her 2007 experience at the county.
“That same process occurred and there was staff that was touring with the candidates and it was staff that ended up making recommendations to certain commissioners on who they’d like to see as their boss,” Holland said. “I had a real issue with that, and frankly I think it changed the course of Flagler County’s history. I would just say, this is a decision by this council, it is a decision that’s critical to our success, we were elected by the people of this community to represent them, we have a very dedicated group of staff, it’s not a reflection on them, but I really saw that happen and I would not recommend that that would be the approach we take.”
Holland wants a mold-breaker, Cuff wants someone who makes the trains run on time.
Thomas said the candidates will want to meet the staff regardless, and that there should be a built-in process allowing the candidates to seize up their potential top staff, and vice versa. “You don’t hire them, you don’t fire them, but you should have some feedback to your elected body just as they provide feedback to you on any number of projects and issues,” Thomas said, seeming surprised by Holland’s response, “so my recommendation is that you have some sort of process.” If not, he said, “it will raise a red flag to your candidates if they don’t get a chance to meet your staff.”
Cuff gently but very firmly disagreed with Holland.
He said he would not expect city staff to whisper in his ear, and wouldn’t respect staffers who would. “But because I do respect our staff and their professionalism and in some cases the decades of experience and specialty knowledge of their area of management,” Cuff said, “I can’t imagine voting to hire somebody that’s gone through this process that doesn’t want to at least have a peek at who they’re going to be expected to work with, otherwise you end up with some egomaniac who thinks they’re just hiring somebody to come here and clean house. If I had to say one quality that I’m looking for in a candidate, that’s not it. I think anyone who doesn’t value the department directors that we have here, that we’ve been able to build up over the years, many of whom have far more experience in this community than the 17 years of the city’s existence–we have to provide some opportunity for that kind of input.”
Cuff was sending a message to his colleagues, if not to city staff, that he is not interested in major turn-over in the post-Landon era, though of course that will be the new manager’s prerogative, not the council’s. But it could also be another signal of Cuff’s support for sticking with Beau Falgout, the interim manager who used to be Landon’s deputy. Cuff has spoken that support previously.
Holland and Cuff also diverged on how radically different they want the next manager to be. The subject came up when Thomas was discussing where the position is being advertises.
Cuff had no issues with the list of outlets. “The verbiage looks fine. I’m a little surprised you left out the ‘walks on water,’” Bob Cuff said with his usual wryness. He’s focused on finding someone who can run the less than glamorous nuts-and-bolts aspects of a city–keeping the swales operational, the roads paved, the water utility working, the garbage trucks upright. That had been one of Landon’s strengths, albeit at the cost of a wanting imagination.
“My fear and I’ve said this from the beginning is that we’re going to attract the typical candidates that have been doing this for 40 years, and that is of no interest to me,” Holland said, reflecting on the head-hunter’s advertising strategy. “I don’t see a lot of non-traditional marketing strategies,” Holland said. Based on that, “I could probably hand you a note and I could tell you who’s going to apply for this job through the Florida City-County Managers’ Association and the Florida League of Cities, and the Florida Association of Counties. I’m not going to say anything negative about those people that have served for many years, but it’s just that recycling of candidates, my fear is that’s going to cause that in this instance.”
Thomas sought to reassure her, and agreed to include several suggestions on advertising venues from council member Nick Klufas. “I see thousands of resumes,” he said. “We will attract both kinds, you’ll have the traditional candidates, the non-traditional, and then you’ll probably have a bunch of candidates who have no business applying but they say, hey, I want to be a city manager.” He will be seeking out candidates through advertising and his own contacts, plus a newsletter that goes to over 40,000 people in local government, including elected officials.
SGR drafted a glossy, nine-page brochure (see below) that could in a different context just as easily work as a marketing brochure for retirees or young professionals or couples starting a family–or individuals in the witness-protection program (Palm Coast has had its share).
“The idea candidate attributes are really a composite,” he said, based on what amounted to a word cloud generated from the “ton of notes” he took. Those attributes include “a strong financial background and sound business acumen, including long-term capital planning and budgeting skills,” consensus-building, flexibility, “a delegator, as opposed to a micromanager,” and this: “The City Manager will be highly visible in the community and should be comfortable dealing with a high level of citizen and business engagement. Personable, humble, and easygoing, the ideal candidate will have a strong sense of humor, and the soft skills, emotional intelligence, and public relations experience needed to build strong relationships with staff, Council, citizens, intergovernmental agencies, and the media.”
The last part contrasts with former manager Landon’s profile, which did not match up with that description.
“The brochure is intended not to be all-inclusive. What you want is to whet the appetite of the candidates and encourage them to reach out and contact me or to learn more about the community,” Thomas said.
In 30 days, Thomas will sort through the applications and triage them down to a smaller batch, throwing out the outliers. There’ll be a special meeting with the council to further reduce the applicants to an initial shortlist. Candidates will then have to answer questionnaires of some two dozen questions about their background, why they left their last position, whether they have any controversies to disclose, their desired pay. SGR will conduct background checks on them. The candidates will also submit to a video interview conducted by SGR. Council members will then have a briefing book collecting the lot, and decide at another meeting who to bring in for interviews.
There was a possibility of holding one-on-one interviews between the candidates and the council members. Holland was not keen on that idea, nor were Howell and Klufas, wanting a more open process to hear each of the council members’ perspectives.
“What I fear most is that I can’t take advantage of the experience that everyone on our council has, while we’re asking these questions,” Klufas said. “It’s just impossible for me to generate these questions with your background on the county commission, having gone through this process.”
For all the discussion and disagreements, Holland was amply satisfied with SGR’s work. “This is very, very professional, and I’m very impressed,” she told Thomas, “and I’m looking forward to the pool of candidates that want to be part of pour great community.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind you’ll attract a very qualified pool,” he said.
See below for the job posting and the nine-page brochure circulating among applicants.
The job posting, live here.
Boasting beautiful natural vistas and endless recreational opportunities, the City of Palm Coast is situated on 96 square miles along saltwater and freshwater canals and the Intracoastal Waterway in Northeast Florida, just minutes from pristine Atlantic Ocean beaches. One of Florida’s newest cities, the growing, dynamic community of 86,516 provides a full array of municipal services with 450 full-time, 4 part-time, and 70 seasonal/temporary employees with a budget of $143.7 million. The city operates under the council-manager form of government with a Mayor & four Council Members.
The successor City Manager should have a demonstrated track record of resourceful, entrepreneurial approaches to development, willing to consider creative strategies to address high-growth community issues and challenges and have a sense of vision for both the organization and community that will ensure sustainable future growth.
The ideal candidate must hold a bachelor’s degree in public administration, business administration, or a related field; a master’s degree is preferred. A minimum of eight years of progressively responsible experience in a City Manager’s office or as a Department Head in the management and administration of a municipal government is desired. Any combination of education and experience that provides the required knowledge and skills will also be considered. The final selected candidate shall establish residency within the corporate limits of the City within six (6) months of appointment.