Note: The Flagler Beach City Commission in its city manager-selection process wants to hear from residents. If you’re a Flagler Beach resident or a Flagler Beach business owner and you’d like to submit a question for a candidate to answer in the interview process, e-mail the City Clerk at [email protected]. To insure that all submitted questions are only from Flagler Beach residents or business owners, include your name and address in the e-mail. The deadline for submittal of all questions is 4 p.m. on Friday, February 12.
It’s down to two choices for city manager in Flagler Beach: Dru Driscoll, who spent the last 22 years in the Daytona Beach city administration and is its deputy city manager, and William Whitson, currently a Texas-based local government consultant. Whitson managed four cities in three states, including Florida, and was for eight years the assistant manager in Port Orange, in the shadow of the now-retired and always baronial Ken Parker.
Parker led the search for candidates on behalf of the city commission, which hopes to have a permanent replacement for the late Larry Newsom in place within some 90 days.
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Newsom, by most accounts the city’s best manager of the past two decades, died unexpectedly in August. He left the commission with unusually high expectations for his successor. Newsom’s experience was broad and deep. His demeanor was folksy but genuine and, at least until his more checkered last year, all business. He was a fierce protector of and advocate for his staff, whose quality is not in doubt, as he was for the city.
There was little question after last week’s interviews that the candidate with the most Newsom-like DNA was Whitson, whose experience and personality align to a surprising extent with his predecessor’s–minus the somewhat gruff side of Newsom that could emerge from time to time. Whitson also reflected a sheer sense of pleasure in the work, if not joy (a term Matt Morton used in his interview for the Palm Coast manager’s job, and has at times reflected in his approach since, when not weighed down by overtly political strife).
Driscoll was polished, rehearsed and on top of his interviewing skills. “I love bullet points,” he told commissioners at one point–and often spoke like it too, though he appeared less relaxed than Whitson and more prone to generalities and buzz words than the conversational ease Whitson brought to everyday illustrations of his management style and experience. Driscoll came across as a bit too pandering a couple of times, name-dropping commissioners’ businesses or finishing his interview by singling out each commissioner in turn to tie him or her to a particular issue, as if to show how well he’d done his homework.
In that regard, neither finalist was anywhere near a slacker: they knew the city, the staff, the budget and local issues in impressive detail, and both could boast of having known the city personally over the years. Driscoll says he’s been looking to buy a house there for a year. Whitson says he used to bike up and back from Port Orange when training for a fund-raising bike trip he did across the state.
The city commission last week interviewed four finalists by zoom, eliminating Rodney Lucas, the current community development in Bunnell, and John Barkley, the city manager in Winslow, Ariz. and a former county and city manager in Virginia. Since then, commissioners have been interviewing the candidates one-on-one, usually by Zoom, in sessions that have not been made publicly available. The commission meets on Feb. 17 to decide whom to pick. Meanwhile, it is asking city residents to send in their questions, if they so choose.
Unlike Palm Coast and the school board, both of which picked top executives in the past two years, Flagler Beach will not hold a community forum per se with the two finalists before making its choice. But the two candidates will be present–in person–at City Hall on Feb. 17, when the commission conducts another round of questions and the public will be in attendance, affording the chance of some interactions.
William Whitson–don’t call him Bill: that’s his father’s name–started his interview with a pop-culture reference (and a misattribution): “There’s an old song by Bruce Springsteen that says I was born in a small town and raised in a small town,” he said–the song is actually Jon Mellencamp’s–“well, that’s me.” He described a progeny of public servants–uncles as judge, superintendent, county extension agent, a mother who was a schoolteacher for 35 years. “So we’re very passionate about public service, it’s kind of the cloth I’m cut out from,” Whitson said. (In contrast, Driscoll chose a quote by Ronald Reagan–who said “government is the problem” in his first inaugural–to headline the website he put together before his interview, though in fairness ro Driscoll (and Reagan) the quote, uttered in a CBS interview years after the president had left office, referred to Franklin Roosevelt’s skill at winning people’s trust.)
Whitson thought he’d be a musician until he found out his “passion for music far exceeded my talent,” so he switched majors and went into public administration. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a general schedule federal employee, then went into local government.
His strengths? “There’s just not a whole lot that’s going to flap me or get me upset or turned around or surprise me. I’ve seen a lot, done a lot,” he said. He spoke of “steadiness,” “dependability” and reliability, a steadiness reflected in his interview demeanor. Weaknesses? “I’m a pretty poor reader of my own documents,” he said, meaning his proofreading or editing skills (which explains the copy-editing required for his musical references). So he has others do that. He also described himself as “passionate”–a term often used by interviewees when they’re asked about their weaknesses, veiling perhaps a shorter fuse: that, too, was a Newsom issue. “I’ve had to kind of slow my roll a little bit,” Whitson said, but his gray hairs helped him overcome his “weaknesses of impatience and things like that.”
Whitson says his long-term goal is to return to Florida. “I’ve always had sand in my shoes,” he said. When asked about his short-term goal, he characteristically used the question as a spring-board to proposing a local initiative (and showing off his local knowledge): He wants to be part of the Flagler Beach centennial team. The city, he told an entirely surprised commission, is marking its centennial in 2025. “Centennial is a big deal, so I’d love to get a hold of that,” he said (thus planting the idea of at least a four-year contract along the way).
Whitson was also insistent on goal-setting and taking the commission on a retreat, a common tactic by incoming managers. “Communities that do better, communities that do well, they know who they are and they know where they want to go,” he said, “that process of defining that is worth the energy and effort, and I really believe in it.” He said what was becoming obvious: he loves “process,” the actual nitty-gritty governance aspect of the job, and loves to share it: He’d have his departments put out a weekly progress report, for example (not an uncommon practice among city managers, though Newsom didn;t seem to have much patience for it). He’s also a big fan of “mobile city halls,” so instead of asking residents to come to the city–at least in non-pandemic times–city hall could be organized on wheels on a Saturday.
Commissioners and the mayor asked questions in turn–the same questions asked of all candidates, among them about keeping harmony with staff. “I talk to them a lot, I get out of my office, I have a habit on Fridays of just wandering around, going to their work sites instead of them coming to mine,” Whitson said (echoing Sheriff Rick Staly’s habit of going on patrol on Friday nights: the two would likely run into each other one of those Fridays.) “I have a lot of staff meetings. I put out a lot of notes.” The statement pleased Commissioner Ken Bryan, who teaches that technique of “managing by walking” in his management classes.
Some of the questions were more technical, such as about budget preparation and the administration’s role compared to the commission’s. That had been a point of contention in the latter Newsom years: some commission members felt the administration was taking too much of a leading role, getting ahead of the commissioners). He spoke of his experience with state agencies, echoing Newsom’s experience. “I found it very fruitful to get in there and network and to work with the state agencies. I just love doing it,” he said. “I understand them. I understand their concerns and I love working through that process with them.”
He also handled all of Port Orange’s legislative affairs when he worked in Port Orange, giving him a leg up with Tallahassee, and said he “cut my teeth” on grant-writing. He said he was “a little shy” on direct beach management issues, but worked with the U.S. Corps of Engineers for much of his career. And as for emergency management, he said he’d handled seven hurricane emergencies. “None of them were any fun,” he said.
When it was his turn to ask the commission questions, he was as assertive setting down markers as he’d been explaining his work history–and showed himself unafraid to speak limits to power. “I’m not looking to work for a council that wants to be involved in every little detail,” he said. “I’m looking for a council that wants to be a policy setter. Tell me where you want to go, then help me find resources to get there. Is that the kind of relationship you’re looking for?”
“It’s in our charter, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the commission–and has sat on the hiring of five or six city managers–said.
“I’ve seen that before too, but–,” Whitson said.
“I would expect nothing less,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said.
“I do not like getting in the weeds,” Commissioner Cooley said.
“As a new city commissioner,” Deborah Phillips said, “I’ve been in the position almost a year in March, it’s just been difficult for me to understand everything that a commissioner is supposed to do, so sometimes getting in the weeds is good for me, because it’s a way for me to learn, but I know ultimately it’s really not the right thing.”
“That’s the kind of relationship I would like to build,” he said.
In reality, Flagler Beach commissioners are among the most involved in their government of all local elected officials, though in the past several years they’ve respected lines of authority, channeling their involvement through the manager. That had not always been the case.
After lavishing praise on the staff, Whitson made an enthusiastic closing statement: “I’m sold,” he said. “I’m sold on your vision, I’m sold on the small-town atmosphere, I’m sold on where you want to go, I’m sold on the fact that you have a good, solid staff, I’m sold that your community has the bones and the makings of something great, and I’m sold on the fact that I would like to be part of your family, if that is your desire. I really believe that it would be beneficial, given my experience and background, to work with the city.” He also described it as a good fit for himself, helping him return to Florida. “This is not some big stepping-stone for me to go some other place. This is what feels right at this point in my career.”
He had managed to sell himself without seeming slick or sleazy, seeming instead to speak genuinely from the heart. If he’d prepared with cue cards, it didn’t show–or at least the cards reflected his character rather than a set formula cribbed from
Driscoll ended with plea, followed by a startling statement: “Don’t let my title of deputy city manager reflect what you believe to be my experience,” he said. He’d submitted a one-page resume with three jobs: deputy fire chief, fire chief, and deputy city manager since February 2019, also while being fire chief.
“Do I have all the experience you’re looking for?” he asked rhetorically. “I will honestly tell you: No. And yes, that is shocking to say. However, what I will tell you about myself and I think is reflected in my city manager’s letter, I don’t give up, and I learn and I capitalize upon relationships and smarter people around me. I believe in department heads. They’re specialists in their field. It is my responsibility as the coach, as the leader of the team to make sure they’re optimizing their potential and putting the city in the best position.”
But time after time Driscoll conceded that he did not have specific experience in this or that field.
He directly oversees the fire department and the IT department, and more generally oversees the city budget as a whole.
Managerially, he said he was “not a fan of we’ve always done it that way.” He spoke in general terms of how Daytona Beach in the past worked out difficult relations with the county and how he’d do the same in Flagler Beach. He said “having relationships with the state is essential,” but had no experience of personally engaging with state agencies such as the state Department of Transportation (one of Newsom’s strong points). On Driscoll’s watch, those would be relationships yet to be formed.
He said he’s also not participated in the utility-budgeting process beyond spending time with the city’s utility director, though Flagler Beach’s utility is one of its most challenging sectors for a manager. He spoke again in more general terms about “understanding our infrastructure” and making plans for the future. In state policy, he said he’d not been part of that process beyond preparing legislative priorities, nor has he been part of the sort of litigation that would give him the chance to sit in on closed-door meetings to discuss legal strategy. He had better experience with recent grand funding, securing two: a $500,000 to the fire department and securing another grant through the Florida Inland Navigation District for a sea wall. He has also had the experience of being an emergency manager for the city, managing natural disasters, though he said Daytona Beach’s experience hasn’t been as challenging as Flagler Beach’s.
He lived up to his claim about attention to detail: in an aside, when discussing beach management, he found a way to note that Flagler Beach gets $80,000 a year from the county for lifeguards, only to be charged $50,000 by the county to handle the city’s IT department. “I would like to see those numbers improve quite a bit, the IT budget go down, preferably,” he said, though in reality the city is getting its IT needs addressed for a steal: local governments that have their own IT departments quickly see those departments’ budgets mushroom. The Sheriff’s Office also shares the county’s IT talent (currently headed by Jarrod Shupe).
He described his responsibility in budgeting as a matter of setting priorities based on the commission’s goals, and of setting expectations with his staff. Like Whitson, he was complimentary of Flagler Beach’s employees. And he spoke of “keeping everyone in line with regards to project administration” after ensuring that all options were evaluated, anticipating problems before they occur.
With commissioners, Driscoll would hold one-on-one sessions and other means: “I love memos, I love information, I love bullet points, emails, phone calls, and any means that is most convenient for you,” he said. “I know everyone has busy lives, so if it requires me to make visits to other places, whether it’s to the Pink Turtle or 7-Eleven or what have you, that is completely acceptable.” And with that, he’d cleverly–if not obsequiously–name-dropped the businesses that Commissioners Phillips and Cooley own in town, drawing a thumbs-up from Cooley, two from Phillips and a wry comment from Mealy: “A little advertising here.”
“Just coincidence,” Driscoll said, shrugging it off. (He would later throw a similar bone to Belhumeur when he referred to some commissioners’ desire for going lower than the rolled-back rate at tax-rate-setting time, thus providing decreases to property owners. “Commissioner Belhumeur, I don’t forget,” Driscoll said.)
Addressing his weaknesses, he said “people will try to find a weakness that isn’t a weakness.” He said he apologized for that, then did exactly that: he turned what most would see as a strength into a supposed weakness: “I preach attention to detail to my team,” Driscoll said. “In my experience I find that those small details if not addressed and looked at, they end up snowballing into something much larger. I’d rather accomplish them when they’re small details than when they’re large details.” He said that’s not micromanagement, but setting the right expectations.
He then turned to strengths, describing himself as a “transformational leader who believes in having a vision, following through with that vision, communication, and leading with a positive attitude.” With “positivity and focus,” he said, the team can be “kept on track.” He says he’s spent six months studying the Flagler Beach community and would not need much of a learning curve when he starts. Instead of walking around on Fridays, as Whitson would, he’d have what he called “manager Mondays,” holding forth at a local restaurant or business with any residents who’d like to join him, and creating a periodic newsletter. “So, tons of communication,” he said.
He was also candid about why he was looking to leave Daytona Beach government after 22 years. “I’ve climbed to the highest rung I could climb here,” he said. “I’m financially restrained from the pension from pursuing any further levels, the city manager position, but also after 22 years and maturing a little bit, I find that I have a better understanding of what I want in the future, and larger, bigger, is not always better. I’m looking for that lifestyle and culture.”
He says he’s been dreaming of becoming the city manager of Flagler Beach for years: he grew up surfing at the Flagler pier nearly every weekend–he recited a list of Flagler Beach restaurants from then and now–his brother’s band used to play in a band at Finn’s, his family used to spend a lot of time there. He repeatedly used the phrase “forever home” to describe what he was looking for.
His questions to commissioners at the end of the interview were procedural: he wanted to know if, once the commission was to short-list the final two candidates, the additional interviews would be in person, and whether there’d be a community forum, online or in person. He asked the commission about growth planning along State Road 100–whether commissioners had actually planned for it. The answer is no. “That’s an important conversation we should have,” he said.
Then he closed: “I’m all in, and that’s why I’ve been invested in doing the website and attending the meetings, because it’s something that speaks to me about Flagler Beach. So I do know what it means to dedicate yourself to a task.”