Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton got a 3.73 out of 5 in his first annual evaluation, 14 months into his job, putting him “midway between meets expectations and exceeds expectations,” as Helena Alves, the city’s financial services director, described it. Alves coordinated the evaluation the five city council members carried out, presenting the results at Tuesday evening’s council meeting.
The results made Morton eligible for a 5 percent raise, or $7,250, raising his base salary to $152,250. City staff got a 2 percent cost-of-living raise and 3 percent merit raises in January. To the council’s surprise, Morton turned down the raise.
Morton spoke of the challenges facing the community currently and in the coming year, with Covid-19 and with budgets affected by lower revenue. He said he’s asked staff to “step up and share in that sacrifice with our community.” Morton has eliminated cost of living adjustments and pay raises for the coming year. With that in mind, he added, “while I accept the evaluation and I’m grateful, I would also ask the council, do not pass the ordinance. I would like to reject the offer of a pay raise. While it is appreciated and I appreciate that being in the documentation, I believe, as we all have, and by watching your example mayor and council, leading by example in this community is what we need.”
Holland said this morning she had not expected Morton to turn down the raise. “He’s just a very humble guy,” the mayor said.
The evaluations were not quite stellar: there were a few 5s but they were rare from any of the council members, in comparison with the many more 4s and 3s. At the same time, each evaluation showed enough differences in ratings to suggest that they were prepared more thoughtfully and critically than cursorily, as such evaluations at times can be on some government panels, though the comments council members delivered Tuesday evening were more revealing than those in the evaluations.
All the council members commended Morton’s tenure in general. But there was more reserve from Council members Bob Cuff and Nick Klufas, though Cuff was halfway to a 5 on Morton’s communications, management style job effectiveness, the highest rating he got in any one category from any of the council members (Klufas was at the lowest end, at 3.27, in that regard).
Characteristically self-analytical, Morton was not beyond echoing the evaluations’ gist. “It’s nice to feel you’re doing a good job,” he said this morning. “It’s taken longer than I expected to find my place and stride within the organization. It’s been quite a transition.”
From Eddie Branquinho, Jack Howell and Mayor Milissa Holland, there was more admiration than gushing. And there was a note of concern from the mayor, his biggest champion since he was hired, and his toughest evaluator, who sees a need for Morton to better balance his approach to the job.
“It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. I think Day 3 Matt walked in and I believe Hurricane Dorian had hit soon thereafter. We activated our EOC,” Holland said of the city’s Emergency Operations Center, “and he was put literally in the storm. So it’s been an interesting year to say that between a hurricane, moving your family here as well as now dealing with a global pandemic in the first time in 106 years would underestimate or undervalue the moment of the first year of Matt Morton in the City of Palm Coast.”
Without mentioning what amounted to house-cleaning turn-over in administrative ranks as Jim Landon-era directors resigned, were pushed out or fired over the year, Holland credited Morton for building an administrative team that reflects the diversity of the city’s economy, and for “a level of energy that I have not seen diminished.” But that was her concern: “We’ve had conversations in regards to finding that balance a bit more, as far as working a tremendous amount, and I think we’re getting there. Between the emergency events, being able to build a team that you feel could effectively manage and run departments, I think having that ability and giving you that ability to do that has been helpful, and I’m looking forward to having you have the ability to find a little bit more balance. I think that would help in a lot of different areas moving forward. But I have been very impressed and continue to be impressed. Your knowledge and your understanding and your work ethic is extraordinarily strong.”
Nevertheless, in her written commends, Holland had summed up Morton’s tenure in three words: “Excellent first year.”
Klufas seemed non-committal: “Basically we are evaluating Mr. Morton every council meeting that we have, and if he continues to make it to these performance reviews,” he said, “it would almost be a symptom of a council that wasn’t working together that we would bring up issues that we had with our city manager once a year at his performance review.”
“It’s been a good first year with some significant challenges,” Council member Bob Cuff said, stressing the importance of one-on-one feedback in the future. “I certainly hope that leadership will continue to improve and the city will improve along with it.” Cuff originally had not voted to hire Morton, but was quickly won over and gave him high marks.
Branquinho and Howell were more effusive. “Matthew, it has been a pleasure, it’s going to be a pleasure, and for as long as I am here, I hope you’re here because you’re doing a very decent job,” Branquinho said. Branquinho had given Morton the highest marks in most categories. “When it comes to me, personally, there’s yet to be one time that I go to you with any little thing that you didn’t give me 100 percent of your attention, correct me when I was out of line, asking questions that shouldn’t be. You didn’t fear, and that’s one thing I always asked when you’re chosen–would you tell me what I want to hear, or you’ll correct me if I have to be corrected, and you did it, that’s probably one of the most important thing.”
Howell described Morton as a friend always ready to provide the answer he needs. “I have no reservations at all working with him, he’s a good man, we did the right thing by selecting him,” he said.
The manager’s evaluation process this time around differs sharply from those in previous years. Under Landon, Morton’s predecessor, there were no evaluations. Landon year after year considered the city’s glossy “progress report” productions, which he oversaw himself, to be his evaluations, until then-Council member Jason DeLorenzo (now the city’s development director) ridiculed the approach. That was near the end of Landon’s tenure. Morton has embraced the more transparent and rigorous approach.
“It’s been a tremendous 14 months,” Morton told the council. “I don’t regret one moment coming back to my home state of Florida and the experience this has been. But I would remiss to sit here and not be grateful for each and every member of the executive who has made this possible. We have extraordinary people, as you know, and our citizens should know how extraordinary these folks are that get up every day and make my job possible, and make this city able to move.”