The Palm Coast City Council appears uninterested in hiring a search firm to conduct its impending search for a new city manager, its second in three years. It is leaning instead toward issuing its own advertisements of a search and conducting its own filtering of the candidates. But council has by no means yet set out parameters it agrees on: today’s brief discussion got slightly testy, again revealing fissures between council members.
Matt Morton, hired in April 2019 at the end of a 10-month search that involved a consultant doing much of the weeding and vetting work, resigned at the end of May. The council at the last meeting Morton attended began discussing the next steps for a new manager. Today, it looked back at the last experience with a search firm and declared it unappealing.
Renina Fuller, the city’s human rights director, summed up the city’s four options. The first two entail hiring a search firm, including sending out bid requests, as the council did last time, which stretched the process by many months. The third option would be an “internal search conducted by staff where staff would take council’s direction and place approved ads in various government publications,” Fuller said, with the administration and council then filtering through the applications. Flagler Beach had taken that approach when it hired the late Larry Newsom in late 2015, a manager long-time Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy deemed the best the city had had in decades. When Flagler Beach took on its latest search last year, it drafted the voluntary help of former Port Orange City Manager Ken Parker, who consults with cities through the Florida League of Cities for that purpose. The program was formerly known as the Range Riders. (William Whitson, who got the job, had previously worked with Parker in Port Orange for eight years.)
The fourth option Fuller presented was to appoint Denise Bevan as the permanent city manager. Bevan today was sitting in her first meeting as interim manager. The council named her to the position last week, elevating her from chief of staff. She started last Wednesday and has the trust of both the council and the staff.
Up to a point, anyway: Council member asked Fuller if there could be an Option Five: “Council members present their recommendations for a city manager,” a statement that suggests Danko may have some names in mind. “Absolutely, I think that would fall under option four where you could appoint,” Fuller said.
The cost for going the in-house route for a search would cost $8,000, mainly for advertising. The cost for putting out a request for proposals and hiring a search firm would cost between $25,000 and $60,000, she said. The higher number was a surprise. The firm the council hired in June 2018, Strategic Government Resources–one of just two that the council considered–was paid $28,000 to do the job.
The council hired it in June 2018, then worked with the consultant on developing a job description. The process was broadly transparent and involved the public. The consultant held a public session, enabling residents to weigh in on the sort of manager they sought. Advertisement went out that December. The four finalists were chosen in March 2019, and Morton started in April 2019.
The finalists included Beau Falgout, the former deputy Palm Coast City Manager, who got two of the three votes when the council made its decision. Another finalist was Don Kewley, an IT specialist Morton ended up hiring, then pushing out.
Council member Nick Klufas said he’d not been thrilled by the process involving Strategic Government Resources, though at the time the council complimented the firm for its work and Klufas acknowledged that it had been a 5-0 vote. “My experience with the firm that we selected last time, I feel like the candidates that they are pushing are basically in a churn of the city manager role,” Klufas said. “They’re basically headhunters and filling slots so I just wanted to say that I think we have staff capable of doing the same type of search that these firms are performing at without the thumb on the scale, trying to promote the individuals who are probably paying for their services to be placed as a city manager somewhere.”
Danko agreed, saying the firm hadn’t done “a good job” last time–an obvious slight at the results.
“It may be best that if we have individuals who we want to bring forward and present to the council that we put them through a process that we establish as a council so that they all flow through the same workflow,” Klufas said. “I think that’s pretty fair.” He said he was leaning toward the third option, which does not preclude the fourth.
Eddie Branquinho, the acting mayor, speaking by video conference from Portugal, stressed transparency and spoke of unease with council members pushing their own candidates. “For us to propose someone, I’m not saying it’s unethical, but I’m not sure how transparent that would be,” Branquinho said. He seemed to lean toward an internal pick for Bevan when he said: “I think we’re well served to be honest with you, right at this point.” But he said the process should give applicants an opportunity.
Earlier in the meeting, in an unrelated item, Palm Coast Fire Chief described how Bradd Clark, his deputy, had been chosen essentially by the fire department staff, not by Forte, and at the culmination of a long process that had rigorously involved the department’s staff. The choice has been roundly applauded since. (Clark was just picked as the interim chief for Flagler County Fire Rescue, for a month. He will keep his job at the city and return to it full time in early July.) The city would do well to follow that example, Klufas said. “That is to a t something we should be proud of,” he said, “because 28 people all are unified on choosing a leader, that really shows that everyone’s going to be able to work with them.” A unified team, he said, is essential. “I think that’s where we’ll have a lot of strength and transparency if you put this person through the same process. Even if it’s one of our own recommendations, I think that’s the cleanest, most transparent way that everybody can get through this.”
Danko disagreed. “I think it’s our job to pick their boss. You don’t get to pick your own boss,” he said.
“I think that this is a leadership role and that the people who are going to be reporting to him should be involved,” Klufas, distinctly more assertive throughout, said.
“I don’t ever recall in corporate America getting to pick my boss,” Danko, a former television news producer, said.
“I recall many times it being a senior engineer, interviewing our engineering management team,” Klufas said. “Perhaps we were in different corporate Americas.” Klufas, who was presiding the meeting with Branquinho’s agreement, then moved on to the net item.
So it was never made entirely clear what the council’s consensus was, except by elimination: there was no desire spoken for any kind of process involving a search firm or a consultant. But the council did not direct the administration to go in any particular direction, either, or provide a timeline for the search.