Imagine for a moment three people walking up to your house and each spending half an hour with you to convince you to divorce your spouse and marry one of them instead, all the while with your spouse somewhere in the house, surrounded by his large, extended and supportive family.
That’s essentially the position Donald Kewley, Matthew Morton and Robin Hayes were in this morning as each interviewed in turn with four of the five Palm Coast City Council members, hoping to be chosen city manager in place of Beau Falgout, the city’s interim manager since last September. Falgout is among the candidates.
He was going into today’s one-on-one interviews a heavy favorite. Based on observations of all four interviews conducted by Mayor Milissa Holland (the only member of the council willing to open her interviews to public and press), Falgout is emerging from the interviews no less the favorite, if with a few caveats.
Had Falgout not been in the running, the council would have had a strong choice in Morton, a former city administrator in Duvall, Wash. (pop. 8,000), with sharp intelligence and breadth of knowledge, the kind of imaginative, enthusiastic overachiever who speaks the language of innovation and limitless possibilities that Holland has been pressing for, and whose natural sense of empathy could make anyone love government again. Eight words he spoke midway through his interview could sum up his style: “Tactical analysis predicated on continual relationships with people.”
Hayes, the Mt. Dora city manager, could field any question with ease, her hands chopping the air as if slicing and dicing solutions, her assertiveness brooking no uncertainties, though her answers and her acronym-rich analyses were as ramrod as her posture: she clearly knows and loves the job, if perhaps at the expense of the human element behind it.
Kewley, the operations manager in Ashland, Ore., was on top of the world whenever fielding IT and FiberNet questions: he’s in charge of Ashland’s broadband network and would be ideally positioned to develop Palm Coast’s. But he’s a bit lost beyond that world, a textbook generalist who lacks the sort of experience that would allow him to rattle off real-life examples of tackling issues from stormwater to a broken permitting system to budgeting. His more muted personality would also likely have a difficult time asserting itself against the strong personalities on the council. (He’d barely slept all night, finally making it to the Hilton Garden Inn because of various delays, but his questioner hadn’t slept at all: Holland was up all night caring for her daughter, who’s again ailing, though she didn’t let on during any of her interviews.)
Falgout was slated last on Holland’s and the morning’s schedule. He emerged from the administrative area of City Hall’s second floor as if he owned the place–which, in a sense, he does–and was clearly the most comfortable of the candidates, drawing on his dozen years with the city and his last half year as manager, on his existing relationships with council members and his immense familiarity with city issues and city staff, to convey the expertise of a man who won’t need a second’s training on the job. It may ironically be that very comfort level that gives some council members pause, especially in contrast with Morton’s hunger for the job: Falgout’s interview with Holland came across almost like one of their routine weekly meetings. He knew every answer, but the performance lacked that something extra that dispenses with entitlement and takes on the challenge as the fresh new start the council is looking for–as someone who’ll be willing to rattle a few trees and be surprising, especially in his interview. Today he made the case for a marriage of convenience, but not yet of love.
He gets another, much longer crack at it Friday, when all four candidates go before the full council in turn, and in public, to make their case through long presentations of their own, and through questions from the council. The candidates generally don’t sit in on each other’s sessions, but the council and the public will see and contrast them all. Still the clear favorite, Falgout has to convince the council that he’s not merely the council’s choice, but its only choice, with Morton’s verve his likeliest challenge. Yet Morton was the only one of the other candidates to mention Falgout by name during his interview–to lavish praise and for the interim manager and his staff. “I’m sure whoever you pick you can rest assured knowing that you have–I’ve met some amazing people, I met Beau this morning,” Morton told Holland, praising the community as well. “What a wonderful organization you folks have put together, it’s just lovely.”
Falgout addressed the matter of differentiating himself from Jim Landon, his predecessor, directly, when Holland asked him about it (without using Landon’s name, which does not roll off some council members’ tongues too easily these days). She told him he was trained exclusively by one man. How would he separate and differentiate himself from that from a leadership perspective?
“I take a little exception to training by the one person,” Falgout said, “because I feel like leadership, if you try to replicate exactly what someone is, it’s always an awkward fit, because your DNA, who makes you up, your experiences are different than that person. So there are some great qualities from the previous manager that I deploy, but I’m a different person, I’m at a different place in my life, raising a family, I have a different style, and so I guess for me, what separates me I feel like is–I’m going to collaborate and communicate with council, I’m going to follow their direction, their lead, I’m going to be passionate about it, and,” here he paused, looking for his words, “I know the perception was the former manager was more directive. I hope in the last six months I’ve proven I’m different, but that’s for other people to judge, people in the community and yourself mayor to judge. But I do feel like I’m a different leader.” He’s certainly more humble, better-liked and more personable than his predecessor, and has this going for him: he does not suffer from Landon’s crippling insecurities.
Holland asked the four candidates a few similar questions and several differing ones, ranging over numerous, standard issues–relationships with residents, with business, with other government agencies, ideas about developing Town center, the arts’ or a university branch’s place in the mix, and questions about reframing the city’s citizen-engagement system through its web platforms and how the candidate would deal with animal control issues and animal advocates. There were no surprises–either in the questions or in the answers, no strange behavior, unseemly jokes or too-familiar conduct by any of the candidates.
It was a relief to Holland who, as she has said on a few occasions, had been less pleased on that account during a similar round of one-on-one interviews in 2007, when she was a county commissioner hiring a county manager. Her commission at the time ended up voting for Craig Coffey. She had dissented. Coffey resigned a few weeks ago. It was Holland who moved to fire Landon last September, after a year of dissatisfaction.
Though Falgout spoke about differentiating himself from his predecessor, it was one of his answers–given before Holland asked him about Landon–that went a long way to show his different, far more citizen-centered and contemporary style, a sort of melding of top-down respect for bottom-up needs and perception: Holland had started the interview by having him react to the same scenario she’d put to each candidate: a resident applies for a permit through the city’s online system and is rejected three successive times, then a fourth by phone. How would he handle the situation?
Kewley’s answer was brief and general, Morton’s was all about a 360-degree evaluation to “not to protect our failures or just let municipal government happen” while remembering that ““people are the purpose of our work, not a distraction,” and Hayes was about looking up “SOPs,” the acronym for standard operating procedures she used a few times during the interview, reaching out to the applicant and remembering “connectivity with our citizens but also with our staff so they understand what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
Falgout answered with a combination of pragmatism and the sort of work-culture change he is proposing, and that may go a long way to answer the working and business communities’ concerns about his differences with Landon: “One of the things I’ve been starting to have conversations with staff about is, you need to switch pour viewpoint from how do you deal with the business process to how the customer deals with the business process, because things that may be common knowledge to you because you deal with it every day is completely foreign to the citizen./” He gave an example, an actual menu option on the city’s phone, which included “press 3 for urban forestry.” What does urban forestry mean to a citizen? “You ask anyone, they don’t live in an urban place, and it’s definitely not a forest, it’s my front yard where I want to take a tree down, so that’s the kind of mentality that we need to switch the focus on and look at from the citizen’s viewpoint.”
Falgout’s answer did not have the storytelling charm of one of Morton’s answers along a similar theme, but it addressed a running issue that has alienated residents from their governments–not just in Palm Coast–making them seem like foreign, clubbish grounds protecting their own processes for their own sake. Falgout’s approach suggests a shift far broader than a change on a phone’s menu option.
Morton, who spoke of his love of stories as a means of making government more accessible–“obviously we’re wired for story as human beings,” he said at one point–described how at one city meeting he’d brought a five-gallon jar full of city tap water, placed it next to a bottle of Dasani, told residents that the city water was tested and proved cleaner than the Dasani, and that it cost a penny, compared to the $2.50 cost of the Dasani. That made his point.
Morton toward the end of his interview scored big points with Holland–who twice could be heard interjecting assent like a praise-the-lord audience of one in church–when he spoke of technology’s potential in Palm Coast: “I don’t like to see government on the losing end of disruption, in other words I don’t want to see us compared to a taxi company, all of a sudden Uber comes out and we’re scrambling because we didn’t deploy our resources properly, we don’t have the technology to stay competitive, so getting that mindset to how do we understand disruption and trends and position ourselves to take advantage of them: we want to prosper because of disruption, not in spite of it.”
The answer could have been cribbed from any issue of Wired: it was more idealistic than pragmatically connected to anything on (or in) the ground in Palm Coast, as Falgout’s far more grounded answers were. But it was in keeping with Morton’s appeal as a candidate outside the usual mold of –planner-administrator-manager that the council is so eager to break. The council has been extending the hammer to Falgout to get cracking: it’ll want to hear him use it Friday.
Only two reporters and County Commissioner Joe Mullins attended the Holland interviews. When the interviews were over, Holland kept her reactions to herself–she’s insisted on not tipping her hand before it’s time for a final decision–and the rest of the council members who’d conducted interviews began walking out, along with the other candidates. Council members Bob Cuff, Nick Klufas and Eddie Branquinho had all interviewed the candidates.
Jack Howell had not–a bit of a slap in the face of the candidates, or two slaps, for two reasons: first, Howell has already telegraphed his desire to vote for Falgout, doing so in writing in an Observer article and at council meetings. Second, Strategic Government Resources, the consultant the city hired to recruit candidates and pare them down to viable choices, had asked the finalists to submit to a series of revealing exercises that required a gargantuan effort of each candidate–each of whom furnished it rather valiantly. Howell said he could rely on those written efforts and Friday’s interviews to make his call. Nevertheless, his absence was not unnoted.
The three non-incumbents were then to take tours of the city and its government grounds, led by different staff members, and spend some time with the city’s directors before a 6 p.m. public reception at City Hall. Friday’s public interviews at City Hall will last all day. The council will make its choice at a special meeting Tuesday morning.