It’s like Craig Coffey and Sally Sherman never left.
Flagler County Interim Manager Jerry Cameron, who is looking to leave his post next year, has been maneuvering to hire a deputy county manager clearly intended to take over once Cameron exits. But in a process reminiscent of the previous administration’s penchant for secrecy, Cameron has been going about the hire with no public discussion, involvement or notice.
The process directly involves county commissioners, who’ve been apprised of it behind closed doors. The commission never discussed the new position in an open meeting, never approved the job description, its salary range or its significance. What amounts to the likely hiring of the next county administrator, in other words, is taking place entirely out of public view.
Interviews with five short-listed candidates are scheduled for Friday with a panel and with Flagler County commissioners individually. The interviews have not been publicly noticed even though the commissioners are conducting them. The public and the press are not invited. (County spokesperson Julie Murphy and Human Resources Director Pamela Wu have brazenly ignored repeated questions emailed Tuesday and Thursday about who on the panel was interviewing the candidates or to a public record request Thursday for information about the interviewers’ identities, other than the commissioners, and the interview schedule.)
Much of the process has been pro forma, drawing upward of 100 applicants even though the shortlist was mostly foretold long in advance. It consists of five candidates, four of them internal or semi-internal despite other candidates’ qualifications that clearly exceed at least some of those chosen for the shortlist.
The five candidates are: John Brower, the county’s newly hired finance director; Heidi Petito, the county’s general services director; Jarrod Shupe, IT director for the county, the sheriff’s Office and Flagler Beach; Joe Saviak, the executive director of the Sheriff’s Office’s director of leadership, and Jorge Salinas, the lone outsider, a deputy city manager in Albany, Oregon, an inland city of 55,000. Salinas’s inclusion gives the appearance of tokenism for diversity’s sake. The internal candidates were all part of the “Leadership Academy” Cameron set up and Saviak, formerly an assistant professor in public administration at Flagler College, led. Cameron said the academy was lining up the county’s next leaders.
One of those five short-listed names may well be Flagler County’s administrator by next year, assuming the position with no public input. (In contrast, the recent school board hiring of a new superintendent included a public survey before the job description was drafted, a public advisory board to short-list the candidates, a public meet-and-greet with the short-listed candidates, and public interviews before the board made its choice. Palm Coast’s hiring of a new manager included some of the same steps except for a public advisory board, though every step was conducted in public.)
Cameron is getting around the sunshine issues because the hiring is, strictly speaking, for an administrative position that answers only to him, not to the commission. As such, he’s entitled to make the hire on his own if he so chooses, without public or commission involvement except for the commission’s formal ratification of the hire at its tail end, and its approval of the salary.
But several issues raise doubt about the position being strictly his call, not least of them the commission’s direct involvement down to interviewing the candidates and the way Cameron himself rewrote the job description (without commission involvement). Both factors make the position at least partly answerable to county commissioners, thereby making it more accountable to the public.
“Each of the commissioners is going to do interviews with the candidates,” Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said today, acknowledging the importance of the position post-Cameron. “This job is kind of the quasi–obviously the county administrator and our lawyer, Al [Hadeed], those jobs are clearly our responsibility to approve and go forward with. The chief of staff, we’d have to go along with it, but I think the idea here is that the chief of staff may at some point move up to county administrator, so it makes sense for us to be involved in the process. That’s kind of what’s going on.”
Sullivan added: “I’ve been appraised individually by our county administrator as to what was going on, I do not remember discussing it at our county commission meetings.”
For some reason, Cameron changed the title of the position from deputy county administrator, as it was known in Flagler previously and as it is known across the state and the country in most local governments, to the more pretentious-sounding “chief of staff.”
The job description is almost word-for-word identical to that of former Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman. It adds a little bit of the fluff management language Cameron is fond of (“Responsible for teambuilding within the organization”). More notably, it allows Cameron to start making his exit before he actually leaves: his deputy “Excercises same authority as the County Administrator when delegated by the County Administrator” and “Assumes the duties of the County Administrator in the event the County Administrator is absent or incapacitated.”
Those two clauses did not appear in Sherman’s description because they would have required county commission approval, since they would not-so-incidentally make the deputy answerable to the county commission whenever he or she is in charge. If the administrator is to delegate his authority to a deputy, he cannot do so without prior commission approval. That’s why the late Larry Newsom sought the Flagler Beach City Commission’s approval of a succession plan earlier this year.
Cameron’s move for a deputy is more similar to that of Jim Landon, the former Palm Coast city manager, who elevated Beau Falgout to deputy manager in 2018 and awarded him a $15,000 raise though the council had approved neither the new position nor budgeted for the raise, and had previously let Landon know it was not interested in Falgout as Landon’s successor. (The county commission is itself complicit in getting around its own hiring rules:
When Jerry Cameron took over as interim Flagler County manager a year and a half ago–the commission slithered around the requirement that the manager be a local resident by calling Cameron its permanent “interim,” the way the Flagler Beach City Commission had done with Bernie Murphy for five years.)
Cameron, according to Julie Murphy, had (after leaving it vacant until now) “re-titled” the deputy county administrator position, “which he has the authority to do without BOCC approval,” Murphy said, using the acronym for the Board of County Commissioners.
Sherman’s position had become controversial in the last years of former County Administrator Craig Coffey’s tenure. She’d supposedly “retired” in 2018, as she was required to under state retirement system rules, but only to return the next day as a “consultant” and with a $12,500 raise. Like Cameron with the chief of staff position, Coffey conducted Sherman’s rehiring process behind closed doors. As the controversy was publicized, and with it, its prodigious costs, it became one of the reasons the commission eventually fired Coffey, with some commissioners pledging not to go along with such maneuvering anymore.
Before her raise when she was rehired, Sherman was making $136,000.
The new chief of staff position has been advertised with a salary range of $105,789 to $174,552. The salary range is another publicly undisclosed issue. Cameron currently makes $163,529.
The position for “chief of staff” was advertised for a few weeks until July 28. A county spokesperson said there was no set timeline for the actual hiring. But Cameron was clearly looking to have it completed before November, as he was fearful that Sullivan–to whom he owes his job–might lose his election. Now that Sullivan has won re-election, Cameron may decide to stay longer, lessening the pressure to have a successor in place.
The commission “approves the position as part of the budgeting process,” county spokesperson Julie Murphy said. The budgeting process is ongoing, so it hasn’t been approved yet. The money for the new position will be included in the overall budget commissioners are expected to approve in September, thus formally approving the deputy position without once having discussed it.
The position of “chief of staff” is listed in a recent salary study conducted for the county by Tallahassee-based Evergreen Solutions.
When Evergreen submitted its study findings to the commission less than two years ago, it found numerous top administrative positions to have been significantly overpaid, including that of deputy county administrator. At the time, Evergreen placed the mid-range recommended salary for the deputy administrator position at $126,000.
Evergreen at the end of July–well into the most severe recession the country has suffered since World War II–submitted a revised study to the county. The revised study includes both the “chief of staff” position and the “deputy county administrator” position. The recommended mid-range for the deputy administrator position was raised to $130,000, its maximum to $158,000. But the recommended midrange for “chief of staff” was raised to $140,000, or 11 percent higher than two years ago, with a maximum recommendation of $175,000 and a minimum of $106,000. That was the range advertised for the new chief of staff position.
The range is part of a new pay grade that commissioners–like everything else in this process–have not approved. The deputy county administrator position was part of an existing pay grade (pay grade 525), which includes the county engineer and the deputy county attorney. The salary range of the pay grade had been $85,000 to $145,000. In May 2018, the commission approved raising the range to $100,000 to $155,000. It did so because Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer, had been offered a better-paying job in Volusia County. Commissioners raised her pay grade’s range to keep her, and promptly awarded her a raise, giving her the salary at the top end of the range, as the administration often does: $155,000.
Part of the maneuvering for the chief of staff position includes yet another potential big raise for the three positions included in the pay grade, though the pay grade would be eliminated and replaced with pay grade 215, with the salary range advertised for the chief of staff position applying to all three. The county commission has already given the county attorney the go-ahead to hire a deputy county attorney. Unusually for this administration, that nod was done in a public meeting.
The county’s PR office is usually quick to issue press releases flattering to the county, but has been entirely silent on the “chief of staff” process. (Cameron has forbidden his PR office from sending press releases to FlaglerLive since he was unhappy about a story detailing how his administration was presenting misleading covid-19 numbers. Commissioners Don O’Brien, Sullivan and Charlie Ericksen said they object to Cameron playing favorites with media, but with characteristic deference have done nothing to ensure that he did not do so.)