Less than three months into City Manager Matthew Morton’s tenure, there’s been a shake-up in Palm Coast government. Three directors and a manager resigned between Thursday and Tuesday, and the communications and marketing manager resigned today.
Last week the city hired a new chief innovation officer–Donald Kewley, who just months ago was competing with Morton as one of the finalists for the city manager’s job. By week’s end the manager intends to name a new director of community development, with a director of public works to be named in a few weeks.
Most of the vast changes are not unexpected as they reflect a significant shift in direction for a city that until Morton’s arrival and with a brief interim had been led by the same manager, Jim Landon, for 11 years. The resignations actually began just before Morton’s arrival with that of Nestor Abreu, the director of public works. The changes are consequences of new headwinds at City Hall that are altering the course government had been used to for almost a dozen years.
Morton described the shift in a draft “60 Day Report” in tended for city council members, where he wrote of “promulgating a new organizational culture,” and where the word “culture” or its derivatives appeared eight times in five pages, usually in the context of implementing change.
Landon’s style often cast him as more of a policymaker than a manager, with a pliant city council that willingly deferred that role to him. The council reserved what amounted to a rubber stamp for itself. Three successive council elections increasingly pushed Landon’s approach out of step with the council’s, finally leading to his firing last year at the hands of a more assertive council that clearly and at times bluntly directs the manager, as opposed to the other way around.
Several directors and managers in the Landon mold are not surviving.
Parks and Recreation Director Alex Boyer and Information Technology Director Chuck Burkhart resigned on Thursday. Public Works Manager Renee Shevlin’s last day was Friday. Human Resources Director Wendy Cullen resigned Tuesday. Boyer, the city’s former parks superintendent, had been director since late 2016, after being hired earlier that year. Burkhart was hired at the end of October, during Deputy Manager Beau Falgout’s tenure as interim manager. Cullen had been a human resource manager for the city since 2008 when Landon promoted her to director in mid-2016.
Several directors and managers in the Landon mold are not surviving.
There’d been friction between Cullen and Boyer on one hand and Morton on the other as loyalties to the former regime made their tenure more discordant with Morton’s, though Cullen had also developed a style that echoed Landon’s imperiousness, at times as if overlooking the “human” in human resources.
The resignations were expected. Morton says he’d been in conversations and negotiations with the three directors, and though he described the departures as straight resignations, another official familiar with the development described them as Morton allowing the directors to resign, rather than be fired.
Asked directly if particular issues had led to the resignations, Morton paused a moment then said no, reiterating that it was a matter of philosophy. “Change is hard, right? It’s hard for people,” he said. But pressed to explain what he meant by philosophy, his words shed more light on what may have been missing in his expectations from the directors who resigned: “In general what I have made public is very much how I am,” he said. “I believe in entrepreneurial leadership, I believe in courage, I believe in people coming to the table prepared. We’re serving our community, we’re serving our council members. You should understand how you manage, in, out, up and down, but more importantly I also want you to be a leader and I want you to grow leadership, which means you have to have a lot of personal courage to train those below you to do your job and to do it better than you.”
In other words, “if an organization functions better in your absence, then you’re doing something right.” He speaks against “silos” and an old philosophy of “knowledge is power” that leads directors to hoard knowledge instead of sharing it, on the assumption that if they alone have the knowledge, their job is more indispensable, safer.
Each director signed a standard separation agreement that recognizes that both sides “desire to settle fully and finally all actual and potential differences and disputes between them arising directly or indirectly” from their employment with the city. The agreement indemnifies the city and foregoes any legal action against it. It also provides for financial settlements for any accumulated vacation and sick pay, along with deferred compensation.
On Tuesday, Morton got a resignation he did not expect and had not sought: that of Cindi Lane, for more than six years the city’s communications and marketing manager. Morton was traveling between home and a meeting across town this morning when he got a call from Falgout saying Lane had walked in his office to tender her resignation. “That one was a shock,” Morton said. “Didn’t know where that one came from. Wasn’t expecting it.”
“I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know many fine people, and I’m proud of the growth of my team and the quality of the work accomplished by them these past few years,” Lane wrote in a letter addressed to Falgout, not Morton. “You have been an exceptional boss and leader, and I want to thank you for investing In my growth and for being a good friend.”
For now, Jason Giraulo will fill Lane’s role. Morton and the department were working on a new job description for that position.
Doug Akins, an IT analyst, was promoted to IT director–not an interim–in place of Burkhart. In human resources, Debbie Streichsbier, formerly a compensation analyst in the department, will be the interim director. Lauren Johnston, a recreation specialist who was managing the renovated community center on Palm Coast Parkway, will be the interim director in parks and recreation.
Morton was asked how the staff was taking the resignations and his various appointments. “I get a very different perspective, if we’re honest, because I’m at the top,” he said, “but I’ve had a lot of people come and say thank you, we support you, we trust you, we understand the moves you made.”
It’s not necessarily self-promotion: a public works employee who’s been observing the changes said that employees expected that an “implosion of personnel was going to happen” after Landon’s departure, and more recently, “just around the public works department, there’s a lot of smiling faces, like a weight got lifted.” The employee said “the buddy system is being torn apart.”
Kewley’s appointment as chief innovation officer was not exactly a surprise, and Morton knew it.
“I told Beau, I said this is a Pyrrhic win, I’m really excited, he’s the guy, but it’s Pyrrhic because I knew it carried some baggage,” Morton said. He was alluding to the politically fraught context of Kewley’s hiring. City Council member Nick Klufas had spoken openly and insistently on wanting the city to hire Kewley for that position after he interviewed for the city manager’s job. Mayor Milissa Holland agreed, but wanted the decision to be left up to the manager, while Bob Cuff, another council member, was alarmed by the council members’; insertion in decisions where their voice doesn’t belong. The message was sent to Morton all the same: two of his council members wanted Kewley.
“But we did an exhaustive selection hiring, it was double-blind, no one knew the applications, they were all redacted when they came in for the first review, because we were like–I want this transparent, right?” Morton said. Two names were shortlisted, among them Kewley’s. “I just said to myself I’m going to have the courage to hire who I think is going to serve the city best, and the politics be darned. I really believe in my heart and from the references and the experience that he’s going to serve the city best. So I picked him.” Kelwey starts July 1. He will be in charge of the city’s broadband network, called Fibernet, among other things. The council, and Klufas in particular, consider the network to be substantially underused.
Looking to the future, Morton wants accountability throughout the organization down to nametags for all employees, “random experience sampling with users to make sure were getting it right” and access for residents to all people in authority.
In his 6-day report, Morton doesn’t hesitate to make his points with analogies that are somewhere between the cerebral and the familiar, as when he explained his philosophy of a decentralized organization and its responsibilities to the people it serves: “Power (ideally) in the United States has been dispersed and Madisonian in nature along multiple organization (internal and external) paradigms,” he wrote, a reference to James Madison’s seminal Federalist essay about competing interests reflecting a society’s pluralism. “Power is still Madisonian, now being dispersed amongst residents, service groups and community leaders. This strengthens our communities. This is good. Kennedy once said “A rising tide lifts all boats”. This new Madisonian [dispersion] asks us to realign our service(s) to ensure people are empowered and have a boat in the first place.”
Cuff during the hiring process had been reserved about Morton’s fondness for language primed for professional conferences. And that preamble to his 60-Day Report verged on the esoteric if it wasn’t for what followed–a point-by-point outline of organizational changes and approaches with other governments or major contractors such as Waste Pro, the garbage hauler, or changes within the administration that reevaluate who’s doing what and to what purpose, including the innumerable “teams” Landon, his predecessor, was so fond of. “Some teams have shifted to be without clear purpose, work plans or vision of accomplishment,” he wrote. He wants them better designed to “reduce the number of problems before they start.”
The document had only cursory references to new or replacement hires. The last few days’ changes filled that in.