The Flagler Beach City Commission in a 20-minute special meeting Tuesday evening narrowed its list of city manager candidates to five finalists. They will be invited to interview with commissioners and meet the public on July 13 and 14.
The finalists are Dale Martin, Todd Michaels, David Williams, James Gleason and Howard Brown. Martin, the popular city manager of Fernandina Beach for seven years until his fractious firing by a divided commission in February, is the clear front-runner, being the only candidate who got six out of six votes from commissioners and the mayor during the winnowing process. Michaels and Williams got five votes, Gleason and Brown got four.
Mayor Suzie Johnston took part in the vote in an advisory capacity. She will be interviewing the candidates and will offer her opinions in discussions, but will not be voting on the selection of a manager after the interviews.
Colin Baenziger, who heads the recruiting firm the commission hired to lead the process, recommended choosing five finalists in case one or two dropped out, leaving the commission with enough choices. The candidates were notified Tuesday evening.
“This has got to be a record,” Commission Chairman Eric Cooley, who’s occasionally flared at the length of meetings recently, said when the five finalists were selected nine minutes into the meeting.
“I’ve had some short ones but I think this is probably the shortest in 25 years,” Baenziger said. “That’s what happens when you do your homework.” The commission spent the balance of the meeting figuring out when to meet again in light of some scheduling conflicts. The commission meeting scheduled for July 13 was moved up to the 12th. On the 13th, the finalists will get a tour of the city at 1 p.m., they’ll meet employees at 3:30 p.m., and meet the public at City Hall at 5:30 p.m.
Commissioners were not up for remote interviews, and will pay for the candidates’ travel and lodging expenses, for two nights. The candidates will have one-on-one interviews with the commissioners and the mayor the morning of July 14, behind closed doors. They will then have 30-minute interviews before the full commission and the public that day, starting at 1 p.m. at City Hall. The commission is expected to then convene immediately after the interviews to vote on a new manager.
Here are the candidates’ profiles:
Howard Brown: Brown was the Village Manager of Indiantown, in South Florida, until he unexpectedly resigned in December, after nearly four years in the job, leaving behind a $166,000 base salary, plus benefits and car allowance. He did not explain his decision at the time. In his current application, he said he lost his supportive majority on the council the previous August. “I met with the newly elected Council Members and determined that negotiating a departure would be in my best interest,” he wrote.
His cover letter for the Flagler Beach job is a re-write of his resignation letter in Indiantown, listing his accomplishments there, with references to his stints managing cities in Oklahoma and California–including Bell, in California, the city that drew national headlines several years before Brown’s tenure there because of his predecessor’s million-dollar salary, the city’s near-bankruptcy and the conviction of several of its officials on corruption charges. Brown is credited for repairing the city’s budget and reputation, winning awards for financial reporting and transparency.
He got his college and graduate education in Florida and started his career in Lauderdale, Fla., in 2000, and worked in Opa-Locka.
“Feedback from elected officials has been mixed, but performance evaluations in several communities have indicated that I am trustworthy, accessible, knowledgeable, and a consensus builder,” he wrote in his application. One Indiantown council member described him as a “go getter” and a “strategic planner,” another, who had served when he was hired there, as a “visionary” who is “quick on his feet” and “knows how to navigate different personalities.” Kosal Kong, president of the Bell Chamber of Commerce, said Brown “worked with the city to bring it out of the catastrophe it went through” and steered clear of controversy, an observation echoed by numerous individuals who provided a background reference to the recruiting firm.
The only Black candidate in the running in an otherwise white, male field, Brown would be the first minority to run the city in its history. He traces his ancestry to a great-great grandmother who had been enslaved on a Selma plantation, and to sharecropper grandparents in Alabama, before the family’s move to Pensacola. He was the first in his family to attend college.
James Gleason: For rather obvious reasons, the recruiting firm was not keen on recommending Gleason. For less obvious if not questionable reasons, it didn’t want to leave him off the Flagler Beach commissioners’ radar. So took the half-measure of including him on the recommended list without officially recommending him.
Gleason has a documented (and videotaped) history of being not merely foul-mouthed in the folksy, employee-defending Larry Newsom ways but vile, calling a woman “white trash” and the c-word. He was arrest for battery and disorderly conduct in that incident (the charges were dropped). He has been sued by an employee for his alleged racism.
According to a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2015, he suggested to the employee to change her computer password to “token black person,” told her she should ask her Black Jamaican mother-in-law about the term “pickaninny,” told others that “All we need now is a nappy-headed doll” for that employee, and made a racist reference about Black people as mosquito repellants. The city settled. The employee got $115,000, nearly half of which was paid by the city, and the rest by its insurer.
Notably, the recruiter’s backgrounding did not include that lawsuit on its list. When asked as part of his application whether he has ever been the subject of a civil rights complaint that was investigated or resulted in a lawsuit, he checked No–clearly, a falsehood or at best an evasion circumvented by the fact that while he was the only subject of the lawsuit, the city was named as the defendant, not him, though there would have been no lawsuit without his conduct.
Four Flagler Beach City Commissioners–Rick Belhumeur, Jane Mealy, James Sherman and Cooley–were willing to overlook all that as they voted him in among the finalists.
Gleason is currently the town manager in Littleton, N.H., pop. 6,000, where he says Starbucks, Jersey Mike’s, and Five Guys Burgers recently set up shop. “Littleton took a chance on hiring me as their town manager in 2021,” he writes in his application–not, apparently, because of his past conduct, but “despite my lack of ties to New Hampshire or New England.” Nevertheless, he notes with regret the incidents that led to his arrest (which he does not mention): “I allowed nine months of emotions and frustrations to get the best of me, resulting in the loss of my temper and making unprofessional remarks at the end of a council meeting. I take full responsibility for my actions and recognize that it is something I can never truly live down.” Nor does he mention the civil lawsuit over his alleged racism.
Dale Martin: Martin is the candidate with the strongest background in managing a small, coastal town in Florida, where his tenure and his $157,000 base salary ended when “the political climate markedly shifted during the city’s December election,” he writes.
His previous tenure as city manager included two lawsuits filed against him and Winchester, Conn., the city he managed. He left the town months later, citing “tumultuous events” to take the Fernandina Beach job. (He’d been suspended for 30 days previously, then recovered thanks to a political shift on his board, and went on to end the city’s finance director’s thievery of $2 million, according to the Waterbury Republican, sending him to prison.)
In an email this morning, Martin explained that both lawsuits “were related to my role as the Winchester Town Manager. In one case, a patrol officer wished to rescind a previous agreement into which he had entered with the Town (and the Town wished to continue to enforce the provisions of said agreement). In the other, in accordance with the existing collective bargaining agreement between the Town and the police union, I had ceased providing medical benefits for Police Department retirees due to the lack of available funds (this occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Finance Director’s embezzlement crimes). Both lawsuits were resolved (one long after I had left Winchester for Fernandina Beach) and I was never further associated or contacted with regard to those lawsuits.”
Fernandina Beach has a population of 13,500 and a general fund budget of $26 million, almost four times the size of Flagler Beach’s. Martin has significant experience securing money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), a recurring burr in Flagler Beach’s side. He’s served on the executive board of the Florida Resiliency and Energy District. Ands he’s managed five other small towns, four of them in Michigan, one in Connecticut.
On paper, he comes across as understated, confident and trusting of others, sometimes to a fault, and with a flair for the odd artistic metaphor: “My management style is best described as quiet oversight,” he writes. “I am, by nature, a generalist, relying significantly upon the professionalism and expertise of staff educated, trained, and experienced for specific roles and responsibilities (but I have served in smaller communities requiring more “hands-on” leadership). In some ways, I consider myself as an orchestra conductor- getting the parts to work together to accomplish the common and desired good.” (His list of personal interests includes barbershop singing and reading.)
He’s not hesitant about firing employees “for reasons as varied as criminal activity to policy violations,” following progressive disciplinary actions. He does not appear to be thin-skinned with media, nor does he seem prone to blinders about legacy media: “Throughout my career I have written regularly for local newspapers and online sites,” he writes, perhaps aware that print media’s presence in Flagler is increasingly archeological. “I expect that, if offered a similar opportunity in Flagler Beach, I will continue that practice (either in a print or online format).”
He takes note of social media’s “morass” even as he calls it “imperative that official social media sites be promoted frequently as the primary source for timely and accurate information about local government.” He appears inclined to hire a social media specialist.
Todd Michaels: Michaels was the village manager in Greendale, Wis., for 15 years, an extremely long time in a profession where turnover is not low. He had been the city’s clerk-treasurer for a decade before that. Greendale is a suburb of Milwaukee with a population of 14,000. It has a distinctive place in urban history, being one of the few Greenbelt communities the federal government built in the 1930s, and that intersected with planning ideals of the times, even catching the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright.
He opted to retire once his pension came through, after overseeing a $24 million budget and 100 full-time employees, on a $148,600 base salary. He doesn’t hide the act that he’s interested in the Flagler Beach job because it’s Florida, and because “the City doesn’t even own a snow plow.” Clearly, the Midwesterner has not experienced hurricane season, disappearing roads and piers, rising seas, and climate-change deniers.
Nevertheless, there may be affinities between the small Wisconsin town and Flagler Beach that are not necessarily apparent at first blush, but that underscore how Michaels could apply those skills in the beach town: Flagler Beach ahs that quaint feel it is militantly protecting. Greendale has a surfeit of historical buildings that must be balanced against needs for modernization.
John Hermes, a former trustee and village president who’s known Michaels, explains: “The Village of Greendale has 438 historical buildings, which makes planning new developments challenging. Village officials must manage progress while protecting the historic feel of the community. Mr. Michaels excels at navigating the many different opinions on how the community could or should not change. His carefully chosen projects have helped the Village thrive. One of these projects was the redevelopment of Southridge Mall. He assembled a legal team, managed the project’s budget, and negotiated with large businesses. The project is still underway, but the Village has made significant progress.”
So Michaels’s tenure was dominated by a lot of capital improvements, from a new fire station to remodeling municipal and historical buildings, bridges, a mall, gateway arches, some housing, and redevelopment efforts.
“I manage in the collegial-style,” Michaels writes. “Collegial-style of management is based on the premise that some or all members of an organization should participate in decision making and share the power. Employees and stakeholders are encouraged to share their opinions, engage in debates and reach an agreement based on common values.”
His answer to a strength-and-weaknesses prompt was revealing: “My strength has always been interpreting situations. Political situations, people, unions, residents, determining where people are coming from and where they are trying to go. My weakness has always been not giving enough praise to the people who work with me. I am not one to need praise, so I tend not to praise people enough.” He betrays a somewhat manipulative approach to information: “I have learned that written press releases are the best way to assure accuracy. With limited resources today’s media needs as much help as possible.” He also served as president of his town’s chamber of commerce, which may explain the oblique regard for press.
Michaels was a named defendant in a civil rights lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and subsequent retaliation against the employees (she was a 911 dispatcher, her husband was a police sergeant) in 2019. The court dismissed the case, granting summary judgment in the city’s and Michaels’s favor. Michaels checked off Yes to the question about facing a civil rights lawsuit.
David Williams: Williams was the town administrator of Sherborn, Mass., a town of million-dollar homes barely smaller in population than Flagler Beach in Boston’s far western exurbs. It is the wealthiest town from which any of the candidates hail, with a per capital income of nearly $100,000, twice that of Fernandina Beach, and a median household income of $218,000 (Flagler Beach’s is $56,000, and per capita income is $43,000), so Williams would have to manage with modesty. Sherborn at one point had the highest tax rate in the state.
Planning-wise, Williams is used to Sherborn’s minimum three-acre-per unit requirements, so he may be in for a bit of a zoning shock in sprawling Flagler. Sherborn’s population also benefits from one of the strongest (if small) school districts–it spends $25,000 on every student, compared to $10,000 in Flagler, and has half the student-teacher ratio–in one of the best-educated states in the Union–a sharp contrast with a district adrift on the embers of burnt books, censored histories and reasserted bigotries.
Still, “the major issues facing Sherborn,” he writes, “are controlling development, affordable housing, maintaining open space, and managing environmental sensitivities and challenges year-round. These are similar matters of concern to Flagler Beach, in addition to maintaining a healthy and safe population, personnel, and infrastructure.” He oversaw a $26 million budget.
Williams says he served as town manager “longer than anyone in Sherborn’s modern history.” His tenure stretched from 2013 to 2022, when he says his departure “was professional and amicable,” due to “personal (family) and professional reasons,” which he does not explain in his application. He then served briefly as the chief financial officer at a housing authority. “This position was more desk-bound in accounting duties than I had expected, and due to the rigors and distance of the commute, it was not a sustainable situation,” he explained.
The recruiters’ background sheet claims no lawsuits were ever filed against Williams. But the recruiters’ stack of media clippings include a May 2021 article from the MetroWest Daily News stating that the former Sherborn police chief, Richard Thompson, whom Williams fired, filed a lawsuit in state court against Williams, the town and others, alleging wrongful termination. Town selectmen had fired him over nearly a dozen violations of city policies and rules, including the sexual harassment policy.
How the Flagler Beach Commission Voted on Candidates for City Manager