When I was just starting as a county reporter in Lakeland almost 25 years ago, my biggest recurring assignment was covering the aftershocks of a sick-building story. The Polk County Commission had built a $37 million, nine-story courthouse that also housed constitutional offices. It was badly built. Employees got sick. It had to be evacuated and rebuilt, its nearly 600 occupants dispersed all over Bartow in trailers, vacant offices and makeshift arrangements: the courthouse moved into a vacant department store. The contractor, Barton Malow–which had built a similarly leaky courthouse in Lake County–was sued. The county won. Voters cleaned house, electing a new slate to the commission.
The building was a mess, the politics were a mess, so was covering the whole thing. One man made my job a lot easier. His name was Randy Oliver. The county brought him in to save everybody’s rear ends and be the project manager on the reconstruction, and, more importantly, to win back everybody’s trust–that of the constitutional officers, the judiciary and all their employees. It wasn’t an easy job because, as is now the case with the sheriff’s operations center in Bunnell, mistrust had become as deadly as whatever was sickening employees.
Oliver was brought in as an outsider who had no vested interest in anything or anyone but to get a job done efficiently and transparently. I noticed his rare qualities quickly as a reporter: he never sugarcoated anything. If something was done terribly, even by his own staff, he said it. If something had to be redone, he said it. If one side or another of the controversy he was managing was behaving petulantly, he said it.
Of course, he had the advantage of being that outsider, untainted by any of the intramural politics that corrode relations when a breakdown of that magnitude takes place. But he was also inherently honest and as ruthlessly objective as he was analytical. And he was comfortable in his own skin: ego and insecurity, those banes of so many of local leaders, were foreign to him. So was back-slapping, small-talking or grandstanding. He got the job done. The Polk County Commission should have hired him as its manager, but the commission dithered too long and he was snapped up by Augusta in Georgia.
He is now the Citrus County administrator. I called him up recently to hear what he might suggest to Flagler County officials. He had one overriding piece of advice. He said that no matter what they do, they not only need a dispassionate project manager at the top, someone who can win the trust of every person and every agency at the table. But they need to do everything in the open. That means all but the most routine meetings, all the inspections, all the documentation of meetings and inspections, all the correspondence must be open and accessible. That’s the way to win trust and keep it.
That, and having someone who knows the job carrying it out without fear or favor.
The Internet wasn’t yet on every desk and in every phone in the early to mid-90s in Bartow, so transparency then was mostly a question of accessibility and open meetings. These days governments have no excuse for lacking immediate transparency with documentation and even making key meetings–not just noticed government meetings–available by audio or video.
The Flagler County Commission and sheriff’s officials are trying their best to break through the morass of more than a year of missteps and distrust over the Sheriff’s Operations Center. Craig Coffey, the county administrator who bore the brunt of the criticism for the mess, is gone. His staff is not. Fairly or not, it can’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to get out from under the Coffey-era taint: no single member of that administration can be the county’s point person on the project. That leaves it up to the county commission to pick and define that project manager’s role, then turn it over to him or her to map out the next steps.
This week’s commission meeting on the issue was not encouraging. Commissioners inexplicably retreated from creating a task force, resulting in more inertia than decisiveness and making us all wonder again whether they’re up to the task. There were interesting ideas: delegating a commissioner to all building-related meetings from now on, for example, but that ran into the open-meeting quandary. And Commissioner Joe Mullins didn’t help matters by speaking as if he were still in campaign mode: His overconfidence is alienating commissioners more than convincing them that he can bring valuable experience to the table. Commission Chairman Don O’Brien took the right approach when he steered the commission away from any method that would shield rather than invite the public eye. But then commissioners reverted to holding workshops in the vaguest way: who would be at the table? Who from the county administration would be trusted to convey the county’s side? Who will be the Martin Luther of this reformation (and there must be one)? Who knows.
If they want a breakthrough, commissioners should heed Randy Oliver’s advice: find that obsessively independent project manager–that could very well be the next county administrator, ideally suited not to have any local connections with the current administration and others–but most essentially, agree to conduct all meetings related to the sheriff’s operations center in the open, whether they involve elected officials or not, and to create a joint task force with the sheriff’s office and employees, with an equal voice for all.
There’s little doubt that all sides want to do the right thing, though sometimes the grandstanding has gotten in the way at least as much as the mistrust. The biggest danger now is sick-government syndrome: haphazard decisions, poor transparency, and vacuous leadership.
Incidentally, an out-of-court settlement in Polk’s case against Barton Malow resulted in a $5 million payout to Polk government, a pittance compared to the cost of repairs to the building, which almost matched the original price of construction. Taxpayers ended up paying the double-bill. Expect no less in Flagler, where we’ve yet to hear a word about legal action, though there’s ample room for it.