Last Updated: 5:45 p.m.
5:40 p.m. Update: After this story published and was updated with City Manager Mike Abels’s comments about the ad for a new city manager getting issued without commission review, Commission Chairman Eric Cooley contacted FlaglerLive to say that will not happen. The commission will discuss and possibly amend the profile and want-ad at its goal-setting workshop next Wednesday, and will set a subsequent special meeting formally to approve it before it is issued by the head-hunting firm.
Up to now, the document has been entirely crafted behind closed doors, with commissioners’ individual input, and was set to be issued as early as Monday, without commission approval, as the article below details.
“We’re going to discuss it as a body,” Cooley said in late afternoon. “All the changes that need done, we’ll call a special meeting to make sure that that box gets checked, and we’ll do the approval of a document in a social meeting. I want to make sure the process gets followed appropriately.” He added, “We can’t push a document out we haven’t approved.” He attributed the “snafu” to meeting fatigue, as all commission members had missed the timeline detail when Abels discussed it on Thursday. “It was a little thing that was actually a big thing,” Cooley said. “I want to be real cognizant what we don’t have snafus like that with this moving forward either.”
Today’s original article is below.
The Flagler Beach City Commission is on course to hire its next city manager by mid-July, but through an accelerated timeline that involves the least public input or transparency of any recent executive searches for local governments. That’s unusual in Flagler Beach, whose commission over the past decade and a half–regardless of make-up–has prized transparency and deliberation, at times to painful extremes.
The search process so far has been led by City Manager Mike Abels through efficient but brief commission meeting discussions, reflecting Abels’s own preference for hyper-efficiency and, to a degree, the commission’s own hope of avoiding the protracted search it went through three years ago. That resulted in a manager who served less than two years.
Commission Chairman Eric Cooley acknowledges that the search so far has been been different, citing the accelerated timeline and the commission’s hope not to replicate the last search, which he said “dragged out” for a year. Nevertheless, Cooley said, the transparency will return, along with public input. “I don’t think our existing folks would have it any other way,” he said of his fellow-commissioners. “It’s coming off that way just because we haven’t had that many conversations about it.”
But in at least one regard–the profile and “manager wanted” ad that could be be published as early as Monday–the city manager said it will be posted without having been reviewed publicly, nor formally, openly approved by the commission, though commissioners individually had input on it out of public view. That’s unheard of in recent searches in Flagler governments, and defies common customs of transparency. And it contradicts the commission chairman’s wishes.
The commission two weeks ago selected Colin Baenziger and Associates of Daytona Beach to be its search firm. The commission had not discussed what sort of search firm it was looking for before putting out the bid, leaving that to Abels.
When Palm Coast conducted its search in 2017, the council held long, open discussions about the type of firm it was seeking, well before the vote. The Flagler Beach commission hired Colin Baenziger by ratifying the recommendation of an administrative committee that met once out of the public eye to discuss three search firms that had replied to a request for proposals. Cooley said the city doesn’t conduct an open process for any other contract, so it applied the same approach with the bidding process regarding the search firm. While it is accurate that the city does not go through a public process with internal contracts, the process to hire a manager is different in that it is the commission’s sole responsibility. It is an administrative process only to the extent that the commission decides to make it so.
The city got three bids from executive recruiting firms–Colin Baenziger and Associates of Daytona Beach Shores, GovHR USA of Northbrook, Ill., and Strategic Government Resources of Keller, Texas. An administrative committee unanimously recommended the Daytona Beach Shores firm in an administrative meeting on April 6. The meeting was not publicly announced on the city’s web calendar (though storytime for preschoolers at the library was, as was a special Community Redevelopment Agency meeting).
That committee was made up of Abels, Commission Chairman Eric Cooley, Katie Dockhorn, the assistant to the city manager, Liz Mathis, the human resources director, Rick McFadden, the chief building official, and Penny Overstreet, the city clerk.
Strategic Government Resources led the search for Palm Coast when it chose Matt Morton in 2019. That firm wasn’t able to start until mid-May and was deemed to have the least experience in Florida, according to the committee, so it was ruled out. Colin Baenziger and Associates did the job for Satellite Beach, Jacksonville Beach, Sanibel Island, Vero Beach and others. The committee heard from a former mayor of Satellite Beach, who told the panel that the manager selected through the CB&A process has been with the city for 10 years. The committee also got strong recommendations from Jacksonville Beach.
Colin Baenziger and Associates also has a money-back guarantee of sorts: if the chosen candidate “leaves for any reason other than an Act of God (incapacitation or death) within the first year, CB & A will repeat the search for reimbursement of our expenses only.” Commissioners liked that especially. The firm is being paid $32,500, not including the eventual cost of summoning finalists for interviews.
CB&A’s Ron Williams spoke to the commission two weeks ago, projecting a 90-day schedule. “We commit ourselves to the dates. We believe that we believe they’re reasonable,” Williams said, a process that essentially started on April 14. “If you’re looking for a long term relationship with the manager, and that manager obviously wants a long term relationship, we think it’s important to take the time and be a bit deliberate in terms of the review process.”
Since then, CB&A held 45-minute, one-on-one zoom meetings with each of the city commissioners, again out of the public eye, to determine what sort of recruitment profile, or want ad, the firm would post and email to 14,000 local government professionals. In previous searches, including in Flagler Beach, in Palm Coast and at the school board, elected officials would devote considerable time to openly debating the content of such a profile, with public input.
The school board in its previous efforts, and again in its coming round for a new superintendent, went as far as appointing a citizens’ advisory board both to provide input on the recruitment profile and to sift through the applications. Palm Coast in 2018 included a public town hall-type session to solicit public input on the profile, separate from the city council, which then blended the results with its own before the profile was published.
CB&A was to submit a draft of the recruitment profile the day before the commission’s meeting on April 27, soliciting commission comments. It had not done so just yet, though Abels said a draft was prepared–and was being reviewed by his administration. “We’re revising that now. We’ll send it to them and it’ll come back to you,” he told commissioners Thursday evening. “You will review it and then it will be disseminated publicly. So that will probably be next week is what our what our plan is for that.”
That means the profile would be sent to commissioners for their review again out of the public eye, and commissioners would ratify it for publication before the next business meeting of the commission. (The commission is meeting on may 3 for a goal-setting session.)
In mid-afternoon today, City Attorney Drew Smith clarified, saying Abels misspoke: “The elected officials will not be giving additional input into the recruitment profile. It will be circulated to them for their information but not their additional input unless one of them desires to bring it up and discuss it at the next Commission meeting.”
Cooley today said the profile will not be approved without a public discussion of the full commission. “The profile is going to need to get discussed publicly just so we can as a group even agree on it. I don’t think there’s any real way to actually push that profile out without having any agreement on that,” he said, leaving open the possibility that it would get discussed on May 3. “To just circulate it privately and push it out, that won’t work for us, plus we won’t even be able to discuss it. That’s a critical piece.”
But Abels, in a brief interview in later afternoon, said that while the commissioners will not review the draft, it may get posted as early as Monday. “It’s just going to have to go out to them as information, they’ve already contributed to it through individual discussions that they’ve had,” Abels said. “So the input has already been made. So the final version is going to go out.”
If that happens, the commission will never have formally approved the document, nor provided it for public view, or discussion, before it is published.
According to the proposed timeline, the advertisement for the position was to be publicly posted on May 5. The timeline is not set in stone, of course, and Cooley said it would change as needs arise. Based on the current timeline, the ad would be open until May 29. CB&A would report on the results on June 3. By June 22, the firm will have screened the candidates and forwarded its candidate report, including resumes, to the commission.
The timeline does not specify it, but implies that only a shortlist would be forwarded to the commissioners. Abels said likewise Thursday: “The goal of the executive search firm is to be able to have candidates recruited and submitted to you. I’m thinking it’ll be probably between six, seven top candidates that will be submitted to you in July.” From that list, the commissioners would then select who to interview six days later–June 28, a Wednesday, when no commission meeting has been scheduled. The selection would have to occur at a special meeting or during a regularly scheduled meeting of the commission.
Cooley said that while he’s comfortable relying on the firm to vet the candidates down to a shortlist, he expects pother commissioners to want to see all submitted resumes. “I have no doubt that’s going to be public information if they do want to see it,” he said, along with the search firm’s criteria on how the selections were made. The city attorney confirmed that the resumes will be retained as public records and available for public inspection, upon request.
Candidates would be invited for a city tour and a reception with the public on July 13. The next day, commissioners would have one-on-one interviews with each candidate, and hold a meeting of the commission to interview the candidates publicly. The commission could make its decision then, or a few days later. That’s assuming it holds to the proposed schedule, which now seems less likely.
“When we were doing this with William Whitson,” Cooley said of the search that led to the former manager, “it ended up dragging out, it became a very long process. We don’t have a year to slowly move through the process. The company we hired, one of the criteria we looked at was the time in which it could be done.”
On Thursday, Abels gave the commission a clear deadline for his own service. “My plan would be to transition from the interim city manager. It would be July 31, or in the week of August 4. So that would give us a transition period for the new person coming in,” he said. He would still come in for a day or two subsequently, and possibly present the coming budget to the commission for continuity’s sake. “But I would no longer be in the quote chain of command.”
“That all hinges on that we actually hire somebody,” Commissioner Jane Mealy, who’s been through a half dozen searches in her long tenure on the commission, said.
Abels took it as a joke. “That’s good. That’s good. You got me on that one, I don’t know how to respond,” he said–and he didn’t, though he made it very clear when the city hired him as interim at the end of February that his service had a six-month expiration date. But that would take him at least to August 24, since he started on Feb. 24.
The commission’s search, at any rate, may not be as streamlined as either Abels or the search firm are making it out to be–not if the commission is to be more publicly deliberative about it: “We have not had a lot of nuts and bolts discussions about the process yet because we’re not really there yet,” Cooley said. “We haven’t really had in depth conversations about the entire process because we haven’t gotten that far, but the way it’s going to play out I know as far as my involvement in it, it’ll be faster and more streamlined, but it’ll be just as public.”