Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron this morning said his last day on the job will be July 3, and the county’s new fire chief, Michael Tucker, will start July 7. Chief of Staff Jorge Salinas, who started in January, will be the new interim administrator, in what one commissioner described as a “trial run” for the permanent job. County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said today, as he had said a few months ago, that he was not interested in a search for a new manager right now.
That leaves Flagler County’s two largest governments in the hands of interims: Denise Bevan, previously a chief of staff, is leading the Palm Coast administration after the sudden resignation of City Manager Matt Morton earlier this month.
“I do want to assure you that we are presently engaged in transition, that you have every reason to be confident that there will be very little notice of my leaving,” Cameron told commissioners. “You have some very competent people that are already up to speed, already doing a really great job. Your staff that supports them are really, really, the best out there. So I’m looking forward to reading about great things continuing to happen in Flagler County.”
For Cameron, who has officially been an interim–he never moved from his St. Augustine home, as he’d have been required to as an administrator–it is the end of a tenure of two years and four months. As in Palm Coast government but with far less turmoil, he oversaw the transition from–and in some ways cleaned up–the more-than-decade-long tenure of his predecessor, Craig Coffee, which had accumulated a number of problematic issues, troublesome real estate acquisitions and some internal disarray.
Two of the troubled buildings–the Sheriff’s Operations Center and the Sears building once intended as space for the sheriff and the tax collector–have been sold, if at significant loss. A new sheriff’s operations center is in the works, though at nearly triple the cost of the operations center rebuilt in 2014. Cameron also set the stage for the commission to move toward a sales tax increase to afford the expanding law enforcement and fire services. The hiring of a new chief, after the negotiated but forced retirement of former Chief Don Petito, had been one of Cameron’s goals. That goal was reached in somewhat of a hurry.
The hiring process started a month ago, drawing over 30 applications. Five candidates were interviewed, Salinas said today. On June 2, the administration made a “conditional offer” to Tucker, the superintendent at Florida State Fire College for the past 5 years. The commission is to confirm the hiring on June 21. It was clear more than a week ago that Tucker was the final choice. (See: “Flagler County Considering Michael Tucker, a Former Florida and Southeast Fire Chief of the Year, as Fire Chief.”)
Meanwhile the county is entering into an agreement with Palm Coast government to have Palm Coast’s Deputy Fire Chief, Bradd Clark, be the county’s interim fire chief. The commission approved the agreement today in a 4-1 vote (Commissioner Andy Dance was in the opposition). The Palm Coast City Council will consider the item in a special meeting Tuesday morning. It’s not clear why the county needs an interim: Joe King has been serving in that role since Petito’s departure. A county spokesperson could not explain why the interim was necessary, and King did not return a call before the article initially published.
“This is an effort to get a clean transition to a new chief,” Cameron said, without explaining the need for the different interim. He said there were some “technical things to take care of” before the chief’s hiring is ratified in two weeks. “In the meantime, we need to make sure that we have a clean transition from the previous chief and the interim chief to the new chief.” King had been among the applicants for the chief’s job. “This is purely an administrative assignment is not meant to deny grade anyone. It’s not a disciplinary action,” Cameron said.
Dance said he opposed the interim agreement because it was “a last-second agenda change” that did not allow for due diligence (Dance puts a premium on studying agenda items before making any decision). “And I felt it was unnecessary to bring in someone from Palm Coast for a 30-day transition.”
Clark’s interim period would stretch from June 10 to July 9, but could be cut short depending on Tucker’s availability. Tucker gave a 30-day notice, enabling him to start work in Flagler on July 6, what will amount to the first day after Camerons departure. “However, if things work out, he can come earlier. A phone call will make that happen,” Cameron said.
The agreement between Palm Coast and the county don’t change Clark’s employment with the city. He will continue to make the current salary he is making in Palm Coast. The agreement says nothing about additional pay. But he will have “the authority and responsibility for managing the County’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services system, including supervision and management of its employees and equipment,” according to the agreement.
Tucker was at the meeting and spoke to commissioners.
“Flagler County Fire Rescue has a strong reputation,” Tucker said. “In my current role with the State Fire Marshal’s office I’ve had the opportunity to work with the organization, most recently through the response to Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle, and the staff was absolutely professional and a joy to work with. So given this opportunity I look forward to be able to help the organization continue to move forward and hopefully help the organization become stronger.”
Dance, a former school board member who saw the development and expansion of the Fire Academy at Flagler High School, asked Tucker of his thoughts on the Fire Academy, the very popular flagship program at Flagler Palm Coast High School that’s generated new recruits both for the Palm Coast and county fire departments. Ironically, it was Tucker who, in his role as superintendent at the Fire Marshal’s office, signed off on the academy.
“Looking into the future, we have got to change the way that we recruit and retain our individuals,” Tucker said in an unrehearsed answer that seemed to encapsulate his ability to synthesize multi-pronged issues clearly, without jargon or bombast. “Traditionally, we have waited for these individuals to graduate high school, into the academies on their own, and too many people stumble into this industry, especially in the South. Not many people have a legacy in the fire service, they don’t have a father or grandfather an uncle or an aunt that are serving in any emergency services to guide them through this–how do you get into this field. The academy-based programs, those high school-based programs are a phenomenal way to introduce them early on to the potential of becoming a firefighter and a paramedic, even a police officer or emergency communicator. Some academies have implemented the communications training as well. And so I believe that the high school-based programs are exactly what we need to address our future recruitment, diversity, and to be able to hopefully [interact] with some of these younger individuals before they’ve had the opportunity to make some serious mistakes that may keep them from getting into this industry. Unfortunately teenage years are a time when students can, whether we like it or not, make some life changing decisions, and that can affect their ability to get into the field. So these high school based programs have got the ability to sort of guide them and lead them to a career field. That is phenomenal.”
Tucker said the Flagler program is unique in that while other high schools around the state offer similar opportunities, graduates from the Flagler program are matriculated with more advanced designations, enabling them to start work right away. Tucker drew no other questions or comments, other than a commissioner showing off his own families’ surfeit of people associated with the fire services and fire safety.
Cameron had first informed commissioners of his intention to leave at the end of June last winter. (See: “County Administrator Jerry Cameron Prepares to Leave by End of June and Pushes Internal Succession.”)
“The next meeting will be my final meeting here,” Cameron said. “My last day will be July 3, selected because it’s the end of that pay period. I am happy that on my last meeting, there’s going to be a very happy occasion for me, we’ll be graduating the second Flagler Leadership Academy and I can’t think of a better thing to happen on the last day that I’m here.” The academy has been run by Joe Saviak, formerly in charge of leadership development at the Sheriff’s Office and a former professor of public administration at Flagler College (he has a law degree and a doctorate in public administration).
After revelations in late February of Cameron’s intentions to leave, Dance, emphasizing process and deliberations, at a March meeting asked his colleagues how the commission was intending to prepare for Cameron’s replacement. As a school board member Dance was involved in numerous and elaborate hirings of superintendents. None of the current commissioners have ever hired a county administrator. All four of Dance’s colleagues were uninterested in discussing the next steps. It was less astounding than par for the course on a commission that’s been content to take its lead from the administration. Today was not much different.
“With administrator Cameron setting a last day, what’s on next for us to consider our actions as far as an interim or hiring the county administrator, are we placing an agenda item?” Dance asked. “I mean, it’s our one of our one or two sole responsibilities. So when are we going to pick this up?”
O’Brien, the chairman of the commission, said all that was necessary was to appoint Salinas the interim through a future agenda item, “and leave it at that for the time being,” O’Brien said. “I’m personally not interested in any kind of additional search at this point, and would be willing for the foreseeable future to continue things along with Mr. Salinas and Ms. Petito.” Heidi Petito was appointed co-chief of staff with Salinas previously. Cameron hired Salinas through a largely secretive process even though it involved all five county commissioners (who did not include Dance at the time), with the implicit understanding that Salinas would step up to the top job at some point.
“Well, since we’ve got one meeting left obviously we have to make a decision at the next commission meeting in order to officially do that duty so just making sure there’s an agenda item, scheduled for the next meeting, so we have that discussion,” Dance said. “We really don;t have a choice.” He said appointing Salinas as the interim was one option, though he clearly wanted to have a discussion at that time.