It was a surprise, and it wasn’t a surprise.
The surprise was the manner in which it was done, in keeping though it is with a commission with copious frequent flyer miles bulging the seat of its pants: at the end of today’s meeting, Flagler County Commissioner Greg Hansen made a motion to hire Heidi Petito as the permanent county administrator, removing the “interim” from her title.
“Two, that we stop any search for a county administrator,” Hansen continued, “and three, that we direct HR people to develop a new contract from Ms. Petito.” Hansen’s lips hadn’t closed on that “o” before Commissioner Joe Mullins seconded. It was the kind of speed tacked to a maneuver that, given its import, suggested Hansen’s move may not have been the most intently kept secret in the county until then.
But it threw Commissioner Andy Dance for another one of those loops that have become routine for him: “I’d rather have seen it come forward as an agenda item and maybe even have a review,” Dance said, “some formal reviews so that she has some constructive thoughts in moving forward.”
His colleagues saw nothing wrong with the move. Hansen said the agenda portion given over to commissioners’ comments includes the word “Action,” which some commissioners take as a blank check to motion for some of the more consequential issues under the sun without necessarily giving them a prior vetting. The move also circumvents the commission’s rules that require that any action item be added to the agenda first–by majority vote–before actual action is taken.
It was a replay, with more positive than malevolent intentions, of what remains one of the Flagler commission’s most notorious conjuring of a late-meeting vote that decided an administrator’s fate: at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting that was past 10 p.m. five days before Christmas in 2005, then-Commissioner Hutch King asked during commissioners’ comments to add a discussion of then-Administrator David Haas’s contract on the agenda (no circumventing the rule for that King). Six minutes later Haas was fired on a 3-2 vote garnished in the fixings of pre-cooked winks and nudges.
Its clumsiness aside, the appointment wasn’t at all a surprise. If anything, it’s been in the works for almost two years, back to when Jerry Cameron, the previous administrator, was positioning his successor as he went about hiring a deputy administrator, and ended up appointing two of them: Petito and Jorge Salinas (he gave them a different title: chiefs of staff.) For a time Salinas was thought to have the inside edge. But he bowed out, leaving the way clear for Petito, who over the years with the county built a solid reputation for loyalty and decency in her conduct with employees or people she supervised, and a keen ability to manage a huge department. She’d been in charge of public works and general services. She remained a trusted foot soldier in ex-Administrator Craig Coffey’s administration, adapted to Cameron’s without mirroring his paranoia and haphazardness, and finally, quickly, came into her own as the interim administrator. By then she already had working relationships with city managers, or developed them rapidly. Her understanding of the county is deep, as is her affinity for public safety: she is married to Don Petito, the former, and more mercurial, fire chief.
“She’s a proud alumnus of the inaugural class of the nationally recognized Flagler County Leadership Academy and we are very proud of her,” Dr. Joe Saviak, co-founder of the Flagler County Leadership Academy, said after learning of the appointment. “To get our third year of this program off to a strong start, she spoke to our first class last week and shared some excellent leadership lessons from her career in public service. What really came across clearly to our class is how committed she is to Flagler County government and serving our residents. My experience is our best leaders care deeply about the organization, the mission, and who they serve. This type of genuine dedication to an organization and a mission which she consistently demonstrates is especially valuable in a leader.”
Petito is currently paid $166,000 a year. See her contract here.
Petito did not say anything after the Hansen motion or the vote (which was unanimous). She’d earlier spoken briefly during the administrator’s comments, as always without dramatics, asides or even jargon: she speaks with clarity and in plain language, as if aware that most of her audience is not familiar with the intricacies and obfuscations of bureaucratic language. She left it to commissioners to hash out the details of her appointment.
“It’s interesting that you brought it up,” Donald O’Brien, the commission chairman, told Hansen. “Leaders lead, and we get elected to make decisions and sometimes not go through a bureaucratic process if we don’t think we have to, unless I mean, obviously we have to comply with all laws and statutes, but sometimes it’s time to make a decision. And I think we’ve gone to a pretty long interview process with Ms. Petito since even before she was elevated to interim in the work that she’s done on the senior management team under Mr. Cameron, and we did do a national search and identified Jorge and that’s worked out real well. I’m very comfortable with the structure of where we’re at.”
O’Brien sought to downplay Dance’s concern about Hansen’s motion. He said “the motion is a directional one in terms of what we feel, but we have no contract at this point.” Of course, that misses the point: every local government’s most important vote when hiring a top executive is the “directional one,” the contract approval being a formality to be ratified, since the parameters of the contract are usually already set (as they are in Petito’s case). Nor does a discussion at the contractual ratification addresses the review Dance was referring to.
“Process” is an important matter to Dance as it isn’t to his more improvising colleagues. He was equally concerned about having the county’s human resources department, which answers to Petito, be in charge of preparing the contract.
“I would suggest an amendment to have the chair be in charge of the of the contract,” Dance said. “I think it puts HR in a difficult position to be putting forth a contract for their boss. And I think the chair would be in a better position to negotiate the contract on our behalf.”
O’Brien then made the very point that undermined his claim that when the contract is ratified, the vetting and public will have had time to weigh in: “My guess is it’s going to look very very close to, to what we have now,” he said of the contract.
“True, but I think the process would eliminate a lot of potential uncomfortable conversations if it’s headed by one of us as opposed to having staff working with their boss,” Dance insisted. O’Brien and the other commissioners didn’t go along. When Dance suggested that Al Hadeed, the county attorney, be the lead on contract negotiations, they did not object. Hadeed does not answer to Petito, only to commissioners.
After the 5-0 vote, Dance again returned–in his own commissioner’s comment segment, without action–to the matter of process.
“I do think we should avoid making motions in public in our comments though and in the future just set an agenda item for the next meeting and properly go through the channels that way, but I’m okay,” Dance said. “When the public has no idea what we’re going to be voting on there’s not that proper public notice on these things when it’s done in board members’ comments.”
Oddly for an advocate of transparency and public accountability, Dance remains a lone voice on this commission.