In the culmination of six months of change and turmoil in Bunnell government, the City Commission late Monday evening voted 3-2 to hire Lawrence J. Williams as its next city manager. Williams, who turned 70 Thursday, was the city manager of Belle Isle for eight years until 2008, and had managed Eatonville for five years before that. He lives in Palm Coast, less than seven miles from what will be his office at the Government Services Building.
Commissioners Elbert Tucker, John Rogers and Bill Baxley voted for Williams, who’s already said that he would limit his salary to $67,000, less than the $70,000 to $80,000 range the position was advertised for. Mayor Catherine Robinson and Commissioner Jenny Crain Brady voted in dissent. The commission appointed Tucker to negotiate the contract with Williams.
“I think we’re in a pretty good negotiating position with this man,” Tucker said after the meeting, “because we don’t have to give him as much money, he’s retired, he’s here, he’s 6.7 miles away.” Tucker is fine with Williams not living in Bunnell. “I feel that he is a very good candidate, and we’ll see how it works out.”
Commissioners had ranked the four finalists they interviewed Saturday. Williams had three top rankings–those of the three men. Judi Stetson, the city’s grants, special projects and Community Redevelopment Agency director, had two top rankings–those of Robinson and Crain-Brady. Doug Drymon, formerly a deputy manager in Leesburg, was ranked second by all five commissioners, and Perry Mitrano, Bunnell’s solid waste director, was ranked third across the board.
The matter was decided at the tail end of a meeting that had stretched slightly more than two hours, including a 15-minute break at the beginning to mark the departures–with cake, hugs and handshakes–of three employees: City Manager Armando Martinez, Police Chief Jeff Hoffman (who’s taking a top post at the Flagler Sheriff’s Office) and Barbara Harkins, the city’s long-time human resources administrator. All three were in attendance, Martinez sitting at the place he’s occupied as manager since 2008, though Martinez this evening did not address the commission. His tenure officially ends on Oct. 13. He said he was going to be a grandfather to his three grandchildren, and had no immediate plans beyond that.
Stetson and Mitrano, who were in the audience–as they always are, as directors, since they actively take part in commission meetings–took the tallies and vote with grace.
“I have such a string faith,” Stetson said, “God’s put me exactly where he wants me.”
“I’m proud of the board,” Mitrano said. “Everything was on the up and up, and that was critical. I’m proud of that. The outcome is the outcome.” He added: “We have to hope Mr. Williams is our leader and in his style of management he can reflect patience, good budgeting, fairness to his employees, and trust in his directors.”
The decision to name Williams wasn’t smooth, but few of the commission’s many decisions leading to this point have been smooth over the past six months, since Baxley won election and changed the complexion of the board. That election switched majority power away from Robinson–and support for Martinez–to Tucker, and opposition to Martinez, as well as several other key city issues.
First, it wasn’t clear whether a fifth candidate, who had not been interviewed–but who Rogers wanted interviewed–would get his chance at an interview. That candidate, Alvin Jackson, was added to the list of finalists at Rogers’s insistence. But he was in Africa when City Clerk Sandi Bolser attempted to schedule his Saturday interview with the board. The commission agreed to try to interview him by Skype tonight. As it turned out, he was on a plane. Rogers said the commission could be liable for a lawsuit if it did not interview Jackson. But that was not the case, Raymond Branch, the attorney sitting in for Lonnie Groot, said, as long as the city had afforded Jackson the same chance at being interviewed–which the city had. It was Jackson’s own schedule, not the city’s unwillingness to interview him, that led to conflicts.
Once that matter was dealt with, there was confusion among commissioners about the rankings themselves, and how those rankings should be tallied and scored. Again, Branch said that unless commissioners had established a clear rule as to how the rankings would be used, those rankings would be merely advisory, not deciding. So the motion was made and seconded to hire Williams.
“I have to tell you I’m alarmed by the inconsistency [with which] this board has been behaving,” Michael Barr, who frequently speaks to the commission and attends almost all meetings, told the panel. “This is the third time in three meetings that the rules have changed, and I don’t understand why this keeps happening, and perhaps mayor, you’re the leader here, and you need to govern appropriately.”
“I’m 20 percent, and I can’t lead who does not follow,” Robinson interrupted. “Everything that we have done has been set clearly up before we did it. And there was no discussion and no comments and no concerns and no issues until we get to the other side of it to actually begin the process, and then there’s confusion and then there’s this discussion that goes on.”
“Well,” Barr continued, “there has been this ongoing confusion and it’s very concerning for those of us who deal with the city on a regular basis.”
Then Robinson sprang a surprise: “Well, I could resign right now and turn the gavel over to Vice Mayor R0gers and then that will remove me from the confusion. I have no problem doing that, and I can leave it with you.”
“With all due respect, that’s not even close to where I’m getting to with this,” Barr said. “What I would ask of all of you is, is there any precedential rule or law or some sort of recognized organization or functions that this board needs to hold to its decisions?”
“The board can change its mind. It’s a majority,” Robinson said. “What can I tell you?”
“You’ve told me enough,” a dejected Barr said. “Thank you.”
Having witnessed the process that led to his appointment, Williams had also witnessed the fracture and dissension on the board that Barr was referring to–and that Williams, assuming contract negotiations are to conclude in his and the city’s favor, will now be contending with.
“What may have done it for me or what probably did do it for me was the fact of my experience,” Williams said as he was walking out of the building, by himself. “I’ve been a city manager in Florida for 13 years, both in a small African-American town in Eatonville, and then eight years in Belle Isle.” Asked about the fractured vote that got him named–an uncomfortable way for a manager to start a tenure–he said: “I work for the mayor and the council. I work for five people. I have no animosity about those who vote against me. That’s how votes go. You’re going to get some that like you, some that don;t quite like you. I hope I can earn their trust and their respect, and I think we’ll work well together.”