The Bunnell City Commission accepted City Manager Larry Williams’s surprise resignation Monday evening—he announced it last week after just two years on the job—and voted 3-2 to immediately begin the search for a replacement. The want-ad will seek applicants across the state or the nation, and welcome applicants from within the administration. Internal applicants are expected.
Williams, who gave no explanation for his departure other than that he felt he’d done all he could do, said he’ll stay on the job until Jan. 4. The commission declined to hire an interim manager. The move to hurry into the hiring process was prompted by Commissioner John Rogers, who said the commission had little time to find a replacement because of coming holidays, and so should get busy doing so.
Commissioners Bill Baxley and Elbert Tucker voted against the motion. Tucker wanted “a couple of weeks” to think about how to proceed, and to look at candidates internally “before we go advertising to go through another 84 applications like we did the last time.” He was unwilling just yet to contend with “all the aggravations” that go with applications, he said, though he was speaking from the experience of two years ago, when the commission’s hiring process reflected the same rifts and resentments that had divided the commission during the tenure of Armando Martinez, the previous manager.
Those rifts have been mended, the resentments calmed and dealt with. It’s been a much more cohesive commission, in large part because of Williams and his demonstrated accomplishments, but also because of the willingness of Mayor Catherine Robinson, who had initially opposed Williams, to mend fences and become one of his supporters. She was particularly struck by his decision to resign, as it followed a unanimous vote by the commission just weeks earlier to award Williams a raise.
“You all made me feel like I’ve done my best,” Williams said, getting some applause when he finished his comments at the end of the meeting. One of Williams’s skills was to correctly take the measure of a situation, as when he successfully pushed against the commission moving into the old courthouse (he said the city could not afford it) and pushing instead for buying the current city hall, a former charter school. Commissioners gave him plaudits for both actions, as well as his ability to balance the budget.
Williams displayed that skill again tonight, though at the last minute. He had planned to propose a reorganization of the administration, which included one item that may have rankled commissioners and parts of the community: the elimination of Mick Cuthbertson’s job as the long-time community development director. That item initially appeared on this evening’s agenda. But Williams pulled it at the last minute.
“I thought it might get contentious, and I don;t think this is the time to get contentious,” Williams said. “I want to rest in peace.” Cuthbertson usually attends commission meetings. He was not there tonight. Asked why he wanted to eliminate the position, Williams said: “It’s part of the reorganization I’d started a year and a half ago, and it’s a position I don’t feel is necessary. It could be handled by someone with a lower title, a manager or a supervisor, not a director.”
Williams was directly asked if there were issues with Cuthbertson’s performance. He began to answer, then declined to continue.
The matter, at any rate, never came up for discussion among commissioners, since it’d been eliminated from the agenda. The matter of a new manager had not been on the agenda, but Rogers asked by vote to place it there, prompting the small divide between commissioners over the timing and manner of the next hire.
“I’m a firm believer of promoting from within if possible,” Baxley said, agreeing with Tucker’s approach. “It’s always better to go from within because you’re letting your staff know that you’re looking at them first, and if there’s any staff available that could do the job, we should consider it.” He suggested that Rogers amend his motion to at least give commissioners time to decide what they want in a city manager. But Rogers refused.
The commission’s two Robinsons–Bonita and Catherine–both said that putting out an ad for a manager doesn’t keep internal candidates from applying. At least one is expected to apply: Perry Mitrano, the director of the city’s waste management division, who applied two years ago. His application was derailed because he didn’t have the required degree the commission called for. That may be the case again in this round.
Earlier in the meeting each commissioner spoke his and her thanks to Williams for his service, and voted 4-1 to accept his resignation. Baxley’s was the dissenting but symbolic vote, signified with a smile. It had been Baxley, Rogers and Tucker who’d hired Williams, ushering in a period of unusual stability for the commission.