Depending on which of the Bunnell City Commission’s members you ask, City Manager Dan Davis is doing either an outstanding job, a satisfactory job, or a job that needs improvement. Overall, Davis’s first evaluation since he became manager a year ago, after serving as the city’s clerk, shows him on the higher end of the satisfaction scale, but with one complaint common among four of the five commissioners: he should improve his communication skills, at least with commissioners.
The issue contrasts oddly with Davis’s apparently good or excellent communications otherwise—with employees, with directors, with members of the community (and certainly with media, though the question wasn’t on his evaluation), even with commission members at meetings. Commissioners commend him for each of those criteria, yet find him less forthcoming when dealing with them individually. One of the commissioners went so far as saying that he treats commissioners unequally with information, all of it suggesting that Davis seems more comfortable dealing with commission members in the open than behind closed doors, or that he is still getting used to his role as a chief executive caught between his accountability to commission members and his responsibility to the state’s strict sunshine laws, which forbid polling council members outside of public meetings.
But Davis gets good marks for his management of city issues, being a quick study, and shepherding the city through Hurricane Matthew and its aftermath.
On Dec. 12 Davis completed a self-evaluation and submitted it to each commissioner, who in turn each evaluated the manager by late December. (See the full documents below.)
Mayor Catherine Robinson, in many regards hewing closely to Davis’s self-evaluation, commended Davis on his analytical and research skills, his improving command of city finances, which had been “a weakness” initially, his working relationships with directors and employees, his rapport with other local governments and his ability to have spent the year without her receiving “a single complaint about phone calls not being returned or unresolved citizen problems.” Robinson found him “open to new ideas and suggestions for change,” and after a cautious first few months on the job, found him able to manage the Hurricane Matthew emergency and work through several firings or the loss of key employees: he fired Ferdinand Tiblier, who’d headed public works, engineering and utilities, for nodding off on the job, and fired the most experienced water plant operator “for behavioral issues,” while losing Mick Cuthbertson, the community services director, to a car crash for months.
But Robinson, who’s known for her ability to mix sincere kindness with equally sincere directness, was somewhat critical of Davis’s communications skills and, more seriously, his managerial presumptions, among other issues. “There is a fine line between carrying out the day to day operations of the city,” she wrote, “and making policy changes without the approval of the city commission. An example of this would be decisions made that impact policy change must be approved by the city commission before those decisions are finalized.” She did not give an example of an actual policy change Davis carried out before the approval of the city commission.
In several parts of the three-page evaluation, Robinson returned to the notion of needing better communications, whether through more status reports, quarterly reports on the financial health of the city, or direct communications with Davis. “Communication is adequate on some levels,” the mayor wrote. “We have set up meetings twice a month, which has improved communication to some degree. However, a timely phone call or text is expected when there are major issues of concern in the city. Verbal dialogue with those issues is important to me as Mayor of the City and can be done over the phone.”
Commissioner John Rogers turned in the shortest and most critical evaluation: a one-page sum-up with the middling overall job effectiveness score of 2.5 out of 5, placing Davis between “conditional,” or “requires improvement,” and “satisfactory.” The reason: poor communications.
“I have spoken to Mr. Davis personally on at least two occasions previously and shared my dissatisfaction and even at times frustration with the level of communication,” Rogers wrote. “Many times in the past few months I have simply felt ‘in the dark’ when it comes to information from Mr. Davis.” On that score, he rated him “conditional,” meaning that Davis “requires improvement.” He gave him a satisfactory 3 in other areas, without elaborating.
Commissioner Elbert Tucker also turned in a one-page evaluation, dispensing with scores or ratings altogether and giving Davis his best marks overall, with no qualifications: Tucker focuses on the positive in every regard, commending Davis for his personnel and managerial skills, his command of financial matters, even his communication skills. “I have observed him not to be a person rushing to judgment, but rather a person willing to gather information from resources available to him, before making a decision,” Tucker wrote.
“Mr. Davis is not perfect, but who among us is?” Tucker asked at the conclusion of as perfect an evaluation as Davis got.
Commissioners Bill Baxley and Bonita Robinson preferred to use the evaluation form that breaks down various criteria, listing them over six pages and letting the evaluator grade each, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the best mark. Baxley’s grades were almost all 3’s, with a half dozen 4’s and a single 2, suggesting that Davis is not as effective in “selecting qualified and highly competent staff members” (Baxley added a question mark next to his grade). On the other hand, he gave Davis the higher marks for following up in a timely manner on commission requests and supporting council decisions, meeting community members, showing enthusiasm for the job, working well under pressure and conforming to ethical standards. His overall average score: 3.1, or a shade above satisfactory.
Yet where the evaluation asks Baxley to explain what, if anything, he’d like to see the manager do differently, Baxley left the entry blank. “You are new at this job,” he wrote in his general comments. “I have confidence you will do well and improve moving forward.”
Commissioner Bonita Robinson was moire generous but more varied in her scores, giving Davis six 2’s (needs improvement) and eleven 5’s (outstanding), with 26 grades of 3 and 26 grades of 4. The average comes out to a 3.6. Robinson’s biggest concern: “Making sure his professional relationship[s] with commissioners are equal.” She had given him a 2 on that one in the evaluation, as well as to his adaptiveness to a changing world, his willingness to take continuing education courses, his visibility ion the community, and his demeanor. She gave him the highest marks for his relations with employees, his command of financial issues, discipline, problem-solving, inter-government relations his candor in discussing issues, and abiding by ethical standards.
The evaluation is on the city commission’s agenda for discussion at its meeting Mon day evening (Jan. 9), when commissioners may decide whether to give Davis a raise or not. He currently earns $68,500. He started working as city manager on Christmas Eve in 2015.