The Bunnell City Commission Monday evening voted 4-1 to negotiate a contract with Alvin Jackson, the economic development director in Suwanee County and a preacher in his spare time, to be its next city manager. They did so despite questions about Jackson’s resume and his documented tendency to inflate accomplishments.
When Commissioner John Rogers tried to hire him following Jackson’s first interview in June, Rogers got no second. Jackson interviewed again last week. This time, Rogers will negotiate the contract with him. Elbert Tucker was the lone dissenter in the vote.
Commissioners have been seeking a manager since firing Dan Davis in April. They drew just 24 applicants in two rounds of application seeking. They held two rounds of interviews and came close to hiring a manager in late June, but that fell apart, leading to the second round of interviews.
Jackson was the only candidate interviewed twice. He was selected ahead of Lawrence McNaul, Rodney Lucas and Phyllis Marshall-Hartman.
Jackson’s first interview had turned off Commissioners Tucker, Bill Baxley and John Sowell, either because he came across as too flashy or because his novella-length resume (his application package totaled 72 pages) was somewhat deceptive: his master’s and doctorate were from a defunct, non-accredited school in Jacksonville.
But Jackson is an accomplished schmoozer and self-advertiser: it’s one of the reasons commissioners are hiring him. He started his first interview by distributing copies of his self-published book to the commissioners. After his interview, he spoke with individual commissioners at length, particularly Sowell and Mayor Catherine Robinson. He met Sowell for what was to be a 90-minute lunch. It lasted five and a half hours. By the end, Sowell, who had been bothered by Jackson’s resume deception, was sold. “He didn;t oversell himself, he just talked ideas, city business,” Sowell said this morning, explaining his vote for Jackson. “The guy knows his stuff. He really does.”
What of the resume issue? “It’s thoroughly out there for the public to know,” Sowell said. “I hired him on his bachelor’s degree.” He added, “ Everybody when they apply for a job try to sell themselves one way or another. I think in the beginning he tried to oversell himself.”
The decibel meter in Jackson’s first interview was noticeably higher than it was in his second, when he presented himself more calmly, more deliberately, though still speaking in incredibly long, discursive answers that could take up five, six, seven, eight minutes at a time, looping from one idea to another through many subplots that were not always necessarily connected but, as with any salesmen, always underscored what he projected as his strengths. But it was not always clear what he meant: his answers were strong on the usual words and phrases of economic development (“opportunity,” “synergy,” “logistics” but short on focus and connection between those words and the reality on the ground in Bunnell.
Schmoozing commissioners behind the scenes pays off for Alvin Jackson.
When Sowell during the second public interview asked him to list three economic development possibilities, Jackson listed as assets U.S. 1, I-95, the Florida East Coast Railway line, which does not stop in Bunnell, and land. “Not quite sure where the infrastructure is, the extent of the infrastructure, that would be the next thing we would look at,” he said. He then said “distribution” and “logistics” would be a “great opportunity,” though he explained neither. “You sit in the center of opportunity,” he said, with Daytona Beach “moving north” and St. Augustine “moving south.” He then spoke of “limited manufacturing opportunities, not megafirms that, what I call boutique firms.” He then talked about synergy and how each of those firms would have suppliers who would see “what a great community this is.” He referred to housing a couple of times, and “regions you can pull from” as assets. He then talked about festivals, referring to the now-defunct Bunnell Potato Festival. “The potato festival, I think that’s an opportunity, not just to come here and eat potatoes, but Let’s talk about potatoes, let’s talk about the health benefits, turn it into a health festival, those are the kinds of opportunities I think you have here because you have a population base that basically would support that.”
His first answer of the interview had been stronger regarding festivals, though it went back to what he said he’d accomplished some 30 years ago in Eatonville, when he said it hired him as city manager in 1988 (though the Orlando Sentinel in a 1989 story refers to him as an “administrative assistant,” before that year referring to that town as “turmoil-filled Eatonville”–so much turmoil that then Mayor James Williams was elected on a promise to unify the city.)
“Historic preservation can be an excellent vehicle for economic development,” Jackson told the Bunnell commissioners. Eatonville had suffered under the urban renewal years, which demolished much of its historic district. “I was challenged with what vehicle can I come up with,” he said, so he worked with a congressman–whose name he could not remember–a state legislator, and a community activist and librarian to discuss possibilities. The librarian’s book club was reading Zora Neale Hurtson at the time. Hurston didn’t have a particularly good reputation in town at the time, according to Jackson, but with the emergence of Alice Walker and “The Color Purple,” Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” her most famous work, “became a very hot commodity.”
“At that point, we said that we have a vehicle. We have Zora Neale Hurston, and we started the Zora Neale Hurston festival back in 1988 as a vehicle for eco development.” (It started in 1990.) “Now, this wasn’t your typical, cut the barbecue, have a parade, have balloons. We needed an economic engine. So what we did is we determined it needed to be a literary festival, because a literary festival would actually bring individuals to the community that had money. And the first year, we had 15,000 [people], Alice Walker was our keynote speaker, and it began to do what we wanted it to do. It is still going on.” The festival has since seen the appearances of Maya Angelou, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Amiri Baraka and Danny Glover, among others.
“Eatonville cannot even hold a million people, but that’s who comes to that festival from all over the world,” Jackson said, “and they sit and discuss chapter of her books, ph.d. Type.” (The festival’s website says it has attracted 1.5 million people over the past three decades combined.) “So that festival is truly an economic boom, so when I’m looking at festivals I’m looking at not only the fun aspects but basically how can it bring individuals into our community to spend money, to stay in hotels, to basically have an economic boom.”
He said he started an international folk festival in Eustis as well, though the Sentinel at the time–in 1993–specified who filled what roles, when Jackson was director of human services in Eustis: “Although Jackson was in charge of securing the grant and looking for sponsors, the festival is put together by Sandra Green, director of recreational services in Eustis. Green said she and several friends began the festival about five years ago ‘to be able to give ethnic groups the opportunity to share the richness of their culture with the community.’”
After one of Jackson’s discursive accounts of what he could accomplish, Tucker, who has an understated skill for cutting irony, attempted to bring him back to Bunnell: “Dr. Jackson I know you have a broad horizon to pull from, it sounds like you’ve done well” Tucker said. “But relative to the city of Bunnell, city manager has to do with helping the directors, budget, and, you know, those trivialities you have to deal with. So are you going to be able to do that for the city of Bunnell?”
“Yeah, well, let me say this,” Jackson said, answering again by referring to his ability to bring economic development, but also “operational abilities. Basically, from the staff standpoint, I want to grow and create a dynamic team. And how do you do that? One, being very clear on the vision which you have to set, and I have to articulate that down to every staff person.” The answer was culled from a standard how-to book on management–all seven candidates who interviewed answered the question with similar pledges–but did not directly answer Tucker’s concern about Bunnell: before long, he was again talking about “branding” Bunnell and having “face time” in Tallahassee, as long as he had a “dynamic team” back at the office.
Tucker seemed concerned about Jackson’s focus on the job in Bunnell, as opposed to Jackson’s broader aims–what Jackson kept referring to as “doing economic development.”
“We’re not going to have to hire an assistant manager to take care of the day to day stuff that perhaps I would think a manager would do, you’re king of stepping out of that role into some other role,” Tucker said.
“That’s what the training does, the training helps all of us take responsibility” as a team, Jackson said, with each individual on the team bringing expertise to the table “collectively.”
“Okay,” Tucker said, noticeably accenting the first syllable and ending his line of questions. The accent presaged his No vote Monday evening.
He looks confident. Good luck
Good luck on this. Lord knows that Bunnell needs a good city manager. Give the man a shot at it.
I *would* highly recommend, however, that the negotiated contract contains both a performance clause, and a sunset clause – just to avoid the problem(s) that neighboring Palm Coast has with it’s perennial “manager” Landon. Learn from others’ mistakes – or be doomed to repeat them ad infinitum.
John Dolan esq. says
I never understood why the local governments don’t give tenured employees with the right potential a chance to move up and succeed. Instead they go elsewhere and hire a preacher/BS artist to learn how to manipulate the city in his divine wisdom at taxpayers expense.
Hugh Janus says
he looks like happy guy on his picture lol
Sounds like once more some politicians making poor decisions. The applicant has poor honesty about his qualifications. That should have eliminated him as a candidate immediately. I think they just did not want to pay a competitive salary and are now in a position of taking less qualified applicants. Well you get what you pay for Bunnell. Don’t be surprised when problems start to occur. Take a lesson from Palm Coast and don’t offer a multiyear contract.
Peaches McGee says
It’s too late, but ya’ll needed to listen to Elmer. He’s knows the differences between all the political BS’s.
OMG!!!!! Bunnell may as well as put their heads between their legs and kiss their butts goodbye. Bunnell is certainly going to fail. What is this council thinking? They are a bunch of self pro claimed idiots!
The gentleman is smiling now he won’t be in a few months when they put him through hell… Good luck that place is a joke.
[email protected] says
Idiots…..simple folk idiots ! Bunnell is a joke !
Thats my take too go figure anyway… .doesnt affect me I’m outa Dodge yeah!!!
Hugh Janus says
The man is smile, what can go wrong?
Maybe this new manager will give Nate McLaughlin a job at the request of his Mormon pal Elbert Tucker….Welcome to stupidsvills.
Fair is fair! says
Looks like the racists are commenting about this great hire…lol. But seriously, GREAT JOB by the city commissioners. We finally hired a person who WANTS to do good for our city. This man is more than qualified and motivated to do good in Bunnell!!! Sure the “good ol boys” are gonna be mad but when he starts producing results, that will shut them all up! Great hire and congratulations Mr. Jackson!
Call It Like It Is says
Reading the comments in this post, it looks like the “good ol boys” are big mad about this great hire! GREAT JOB to the city commissioners for finally hiring a person who WANTS to do good in Bunnell instead of someone who just wants the money! This man will exceed the expectations of those who doubt his ability! The city got this one right and the “good ol boys” who are knocking him on this post are gonna be even madder when he starts doing great things in this city!!! GREAT HIRE!!!
trailer bob says
Ummm…I live in Bunnell and resent the comments that call our place of work and home a “joke”. The problem here, and in all of Flagler County is that the good ol boys keep getting elected, most who have no real education or success in the running of a community. I have only lived here for less than four years, but seeing the ignorance and selfishness of those who are running for office, I am thinking of throwing my hat into the next political race. I was a politician up north, and the difference in how we ran things, and the improvements we made make this place look like it is run by either those who should be in a nursing home, or those who need to go back and finish high school. Time to move into the 21st century.
Well said @trailer bob. Please let us know your real name when you run for political office so that we may vote for you. We need someone such as you whom “sees the difference” between a functional government and a dysfunctional one. Again, well said…
I.B. Erudite says
The Commission has proved it is willing to get rid of a manager that doesn’t do a good job. I think this man will be good for Bunnell. The Commission is nit just a bunch of good old boys. There are two business owners with roots and payrolls in the local community. The biggest problem with Bunnell is the main business areas need to be more attractive.
Bunnell boy says
Hell anybody better than BONNER, if the mayor had her way, she would have hired him to run the city in the ground for a second time. He has already shown what kind of gun he’s shooting.