The Flagler County Commission this evening approved Heidi Petito’s open-ended contract as county the permanent manager on a 4-1 vote, with County Commissioner dissenting over the $14,000 raise that the contract awards, and the commission’s lack of deliberation before it was approved.
Petito had been paid $155,000 as chief of staff. When she was appointed interim county administrator in June, she was awarded the same salary that Jerry Cameron, the interim she was replacing, was making at the time: $165,984. The contract making her the permanent administrator awards her a base annual salary of $179,000, an 8 percent increase. Petito also gets a $500 a month auto allowance and will annually get whichever cost-of-living pay increase is awarded county employees, plus a merit pay increase if the commission considers it appropriate. Petito’s health benefits are identical to those of the rank and file. (See the full contract below.)
The contract was initially going to be negotiated with Petito by the county’s human resources director. On objections from Dance, it was negotiated with County Attorney Al Hadeed, who does not answer to Petito.
Dance was complimentary of Petito and stressed that his vote was not for lack of confidence in her: he was part of the unanimous vote two weeks ago appointing her the permanent manager. Rather, the vote was his latest of many signals of displeasure with the commission’s habit of making important decisions with little deliberation.
“I fear people are going to think my no vote on the contract is somehow tied to my confidence in Ms. Petito and it is not,” Dance said. “I just want Heidi to know that it’s as strong as ever.” But he said the commission has become “comfortable in the way we continue to do things” when it could have approached the contract discussions more thoughtfully. “Having a debate about the contract and a workshop I think would have been more prudent, so that we all have time to discuss things, but our processes is what it is.”
He’d begun his objections earlier in the meeting when he said he was “not ready quite yet to bump the starting salary to 179. I think there’s room in here to sit down and do some maybe incentive-based options that can give Ms. Petito some goals.” Dance had prepared an addendum to the contract that would have included a self-appraisal, the commission’s evaluation timeline, set goals and performance objectives once the fiscal year is completed. He was applying the approach to which he’d contributed when he was a school board member, crafting several contracts for successive superintendents and laying out goals in those contracts. Meanwhile, he proposed staying with the $165,000 salary, with the $179,000 figure a goal at the end of a three-year term.
“Under self appraisal evaluation the administrator shall provide an annual self appraisal by June 1 of each year,” Dance read from his amendment, “the self appraisal of the administrator’s accomplishments and attainment of agreed upon goals. By August 1 of each year the commission shall evaluate the performance of the administrator using the county administrator evaluation form, which has been used in the past. Each commissioner shall meet individually with the administrator in the time between the self-appraisal and the evaluation submitted to share their perspectives. There’s a line for an interim review where each Commissioner shall conduct conduct an individual verbal informal review with the administrator and January of each year.”
The commission and the administrator would have been required toward the end of each year to publicly announce workshops or meetings to establish yearly goals and performance objectives–whether it’s meeting reserve targets, completing updates on the county’s comprehensive plan or the land development code–or achieving certain certifications. The contract put no emphasis on reviewing the administrator, Dance said. “I mean we really didn’t discuss an increase in salary, it just appeared as if it was going to be this formality of signing the contract,” Dance said.
“Commissioner Dance, no offense but the school board and what’s going on all over there how it’s run, I’m not a fan of all that,” Commissioner Joe Mullins said, blaming “and I think a lot of it is some of the structure that was put in place for them.”
Commissioner Greg Hansen was also dismissive of the idea, saying he evaluates the administrator every day as it is. ” I think we’ve got a pretty good system here. I like the way it works,” Hansen said.
It was Hansen who, at the end of a commission meeting two weeks ago, made the motion to hire Petito as the permanent manager. The item was not on the agenda. Dance was not pleased, wishing a certain process was respected. But fellow-commissioners told him all they were doing was naming her the permanent administrator, not defining the contract. That was to come later–and come back before commissioners, where they could discuss it. “The motion is a directional one in terms of what we feel, but we have no contract at this point,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said.
Now that commissioners did have a contract, the approach was no different. They were not interested in discussing its details.
“Andy as usual makes some good points about things but in this particular instance we discussed this at the last meeting,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said, “and I think the salary was within the limits based on what I could see there of what the averages are in counties like ourselves. And so I have no reason not to go forward with this today.”
It appeared Dance’s purpose had been misunderstood, and Dance again tried to clarify: “This is contractual language that I brought forward which I believe is the responsibility of us to do everything we can in the future moving forward. Ms. Petito isn’t going to be the county administrator forever and we’re setting a precedent with each contract as we move forward. I think it’s our duty to establish a more precise format for reviews. Every employee in the county goes through a review process. Ours is is very informal, it’s not spelled out.”
Chet Lagana, the fleet manager at the county, told commissioners he’d worked for Petito for 15 years in general services, the division she used to direct. “I want to assure you all, she has the complete confidence of everybody in general services, and the rest of the county. Nobody works harder than Heidi,” Lagana said. “I hope she has your confidence in this, and a couple dollars here and there, we spend money sometimes stupidly. She’s the most qualified person for this job, and I think she will do a great job.