Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron’s hiring of his deputy administrator has been a sham. That’s too bad, because when he names Heidi Petito to the post on Tuesday, as he is almost certain to do, he will have unfairly undermined her legitimacy because of the dishonest, secretive and manipulative way he went about it, using 120 other applicants and a bogus process as cover.
By all appearances–at least what information he’s released and the way he released it–Cameron got the county commissioners to violate sunshine along the way, and got his staff to violate the public record law.
The County Commission didn’t help. Its five members are ultimately at fault here. They enabled Cameron, playing along with the secretiveness down to its five members holding one-on-one interviews with each of the finalists on Friday, because Cameron and the commission, mirrors of each other’s laziness, also intend the deputy to replace Cameron when he leaves next year. They don’t want the bother of a nationwide search. What better way to hire the next county administrator than with zero public knowledge, zero public involvement, zero accountability.
All of that is unfairly hurting Petito (or either of the other two Cameron is unlikely to pick), whose welcome appointment to this fraternity of old white men will now be shaded by her boss’ feckless methods.
Cameron knew his finalists all along. He told them as much in his so-called “Leadership Academy” months ago, when he told them that one of them would be the next deputy, possibly the next manager. The back-stabbing between them bugged him for a while. He got over it. But he should have grown a spine and appointed his deputy the way county and city executives do, by simply making the appointment, without a months-long rigmarole that wasted his administration’s time and will surely start off his Number 2 with his blotches instead of acclaim. His burly shadow will not flatter the appointee.
On Friday, Cameron’s maneuvers had the list of 121 applicants down to three. The Friday interviews had bumped off Joe Saviak, the sheriff’s leadership chief, and Jarrod Shupe, the county’s IT director that Cameron is now trying to pawn off on Flagler Beach as its next city manager, thinking Flagler Beach could evade its own search the Cameron way. I don’t think Flagler Beach swings that way. (In a match-up, Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Jane Mealy would easily be Billie Jean King to Cameron’s Bobby Riggs.)
The three left for Cameron to interview–“interview” being a relative term inside Cameron’s Actor’s Studio–were Petito, the long-time county director of general services and wife of Don Petito, who was forced to resign earlier this year; John Brower, the finance chief Cameron brought in a year ago after he spent a decade as an analyst in Alachua County government, where he’s never supervised anyone; and Jorge Salinas, another IT guy and deputy city manager for five years in Albany, a city of 50,000 in Oregon, where he supervises seven people.
With this or the next county administrator appointment the county had a chance finally to break with its often sordid past. It embraced it instead. Here are four reasons why the “chief of staff” process has been a secretive sham from the start. I’d have hidden it too, considering its shoddiness.
First, that batch of 121 candidates was itself a sham, a stack to make it look as if the county drew a big mass of candidates from which it chose the best, when it was nothing of the sort. The applicants were cover for the final five. The position was allegedly advertised, but not really.
When local governments advertise for a position such as deputy or assistant administrator (or “chief of staff”), they do so through the nation’s county and city associations, like the Florida Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, government trade publications, maybe the local or regional newspapers, and of course the government’s own website.
Cameron did none of that. He advertised the position where he knew he’d get puff resumes. “We advertise using NEOGOV Application System which sends an advertisement to Indeed.com and other search engines as part of our subscription. We advertise for two weeks,” Pamela Wu, Cameron’s HR director, said in an email today. Search engines? Indeed.com? Indeed.com?
That’s why the county got that motley crew of applicants: A fire protection engineer from Denver, an attorney in the Orange County jail system, a magistrate in the Supreme Court of Virginia Office of the Executive Secretary, a “capacity building advisor” in Washington., D.C., an assistant director at Ernst & Young in Dubai, a PR flacker from Texas (that one would fit right in), a PR flacker and special operations manager from the Miami Dade Fire Department, a general manager at a real estate company in Daytona Beach, a fire inspector at an Ohio burgh a bit larger than Flagler Beach, a hospital administrator from St. Augustine, a division manager in a parks department in Washington State, and so on. And that’s just the A’s and some of the B’s. Sheer padding.
Second, Cameron never spoke of hiring a chief of staff–not publicly. Nor did the county commissioners. They never publicly approved the position’s salary, whose top end goes to $175,000 (more than Cameron by $10,000, more than ex-Deputy Administrator Sally Sherman’s salary by about $35,000). It was all done between Cameron and the commissioners, behind closed doors. I heard of it because someone emailed me that it was going on.
Julie Murphy, the county’s public information officer, sent me the applications and answered a few questions, then clammed up. When I asked last Tuesday who was doing the interviewing, on what day, at what time, whether the commissioners were involved and whether any of it was open to public or press, she simply ignored the public record request. She ignored it again two days later. She’d gotten her orders (and had been well trained in tactical haze by Cameron’s predecessor). Thursday in late afternoon I renewed the request, this time copying Al Hadeed, the county attorney, and asked why the previous two were ignored. The next day I got this gem from Murphy: “I was asked to get with Al about whether your request as stated constitutes a records request, which did not happen before the end of the day.”
Murphy, who was once a reporter, knows very well that asking for calendar dates and names is as public a record as it gets. But Cameron was stonewalling. He didn’t want his Friday sandbox messed with. Hadeed of course directed her to release the stuff. She did. But about an hour after the last interviews had completed. Cameron had pulled off his ploy. Which brings us to…
Third, Cameron didn’t want to let on that he’d brought down his buddies to be part of his sham. That panel of three objective eyes who interviewed the candidates, aside from the commissioners? Hunter Conrad, the St. Johns County administrator, Joy Andrews, the deputy county administrator in St. Johns, and Jeff Prevatt, the St. Johns County fire chief (who on Aug. 10 hired the husband of Flagler’s HR director as a fire inspector), all of whom Cameron worked with before, when he was an assistant administrator in St. Johns, where he still lives. Talk about contempt for Flagler County. Cameron is obsequiously praising Flagler every time he’s near a mic, but he didn’t have even one local name worth the panel? Cameron’s contacts are so narrow that he couldn’t even get someone that wasn’t in St. Johns County government? None of his buddies at Flagler Hospital, maybe?
Finally, there’s the county commission’s role. None of this would be happening if the five enablers–Dave Sullivan, the chairman, Charlie Ericksen, Greg Hansen, Joe Mullins and Don O’Brien–hadn’t let it happen. They not only took part in closed-door meetings with Cameron and the candidates. They had an active role in the process, ranking the five candidates, a role that supposedly contributed to the shortlist of five going down to three, making it an official act of the commission, therefore an act they had no business conducting behind closed doors. (Recall what attorney John Kaney, a Sunshine law expert, said of the Palm Coast City Council when it was appointing a new member in 2012: “When they create a ranking of the candidates without having a meeting to do that, I believe that ranking them is an official action that must be taken in a sunshine meeting.” The council redid the rankings in an open meeting.) Other local governments have held closed-door one-on-one meetings with future hires, but always as part of an otherwise open process where all decisions are made in the open. None of that for Cameron and his fab fives.
There’s also a bit of unexplained shenanigans. Murphy today responded to my request for the interviewers’ notes, which included the rankings, and hardly any notes, which suggests the interviewers knew the score. Of course none of the notes and rankings were identified by name, so we don’t know who ranked what–and there are nine ranking sheets, though there were eight interviewers in all. I could ask who that mystery ninth was, but at this point, we, too, know the score.
Maybe Petito can clean up after Cameron (she’s been her husband’s fire rescue long enough to know). But Cameron likes his tassels braided, his tributes paid. This is where the next segment of his lucrative method kicks in.
When he retired in St. Johns and failed a run for the county commission there a few years ago, he secured himself a consultancy worth $142,295 for seven months’ work, according to the St. Augustine Record. Expect a similar deal here in a few months. He’ll hand off the reins to his new “chief of staff,” then the commission will gift him a transitional consultancy worth a half dozen figures. Last year he sold his sugarbuddy Mullins a piece of land for just over $400,000. By February he’d have been here two years, kachinging him $325,000. That brings his winnings to $725,000. Now that his protector Sullivan got reelected, he might stick it out until the end of next year then get his consultancy, and by the time it’s over, his Flagler stint may have netted him close to $1 million. Not bad for a tea party conservative on pensions, Medicare, Social Security.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.