Two weeks after firing City Manager William Whitson, the Flagler Beach City Commission this evening hired Mike Abels, the city manager of DeLand for a decade until 2008, as its interim manager for the next few months. The 8:44 p.m. vote was unanimous.
The commission had no choice. He was the only candidate. But based on his broad experience, it also could scarcely have secured a better interim manager: Abels raises the realistic possibility that any permanent replacement the city may find could be a step down. The commission intends to make the search one of Abels’s responsibilities. “I think that would be project number one,” Abels said.
He will be paid $127,000 on an annualized basis. He will not get that full amount if he works just six months. He will also get a mileage allowance.
Abels, 74, brings one of the most accomplished and blemish-free resumes to Flagler Beach, including infantry and special forces service for two years at the height of the Vietnam War, managing four cities in a 30-year span, lecturing at the University of Central Florida and Stetson University since he retired from DeLand, and conducting various consultancies along the way. He has a doctorate in public administration. He also brings a calm, unassuming demeanor to the job–and to a city commission chamber where hurricane season seems to be going year-round.
“It would not be a job to me, it would just be public service for six months and that’s it,” Abels said. He is giving the commission enough time, in his view, to conduct a search and appoint a permanent replacement. Historically, Flagler Beach’s search process has been much more lengthy and at times agonizing than Abels might be expecting.
Abels was the last man standing by the time the commission made the appointment tonight. He’d been one of five candidates at the official beginning of the process. That official beginning wasn’t actually the true beginning, which had been marred by backroom maneuvering and lobbying out of public view well before Whitson was fired.
Former County Administrator Jerry Cameron had lobbied three city commissioners before Whitson’s firing, after City Commission Chairman Ken Bryan had drafted him. The maneuvering rubbed some commissioners the wrong way, including Jane Mealy, who’d met with Cameron two days before the firing, unaware of what was about to happen to Whitson, and Eric Cooley, who was not part of Cameron’s lobbying, because Cooley would have opposed it anyway. (See: “Ex-County Administrator Cameron Has Been Lobbying for Flagler Beach Job Since Before Whitson’s Firing.”)
The commission had scheduled a February 13 workshop to more coherently map out a way to an interim appointment, with two candidates in mind: Cameron and Rick McFadden, the city’s acting manager, whose candidacy none of the commissioners were thrilled about. It was as if Bryan, with help from some members of the city’s business community such as John Lulgjuraj, owner of Oceanside Bar and Grill, had choreographed the inevitable: a Cameron appointment. But as those moves came to light, yet more maneuvering behind the scenes changed the scenario.
By the time the commission met on Feb. 13, Cameron was no longer the only candidate. Four other candidates had thrown their names in, each with city management experience–John Drago, Katrina Powell, John McCue and Abels. When commissioners short-listed the candidates, Cameron and McCue didn’t make the cut.
Commissioners intended to have one-on-one meetings with the candidates and have a public meet-and-greet with all three at 4 p.m. today, before the commission meeting. But Powell and Drago dropped out. Abels was the only candidate at this afternoon’s meet-and-greet. He’s no stranger to the commission.
Abels and Ken Parker, the former Port orange City Manager, worked with the commission on its strategic planning, or goal-setting, last year. Parker had shepherded the process that led to the appointment of Whitson as Flagler Beach’s manager. Parker has also kept close ties with Abels. It was Parker who called up Abels to interest him in taking the interim job.
The terms of Abels’s interim contract have yet to be finalized. Abels will be commuting from his home in DeLand. In a brief interview before tonight’s meeting Abels talked about the major environmental challenges the city faces with its dunes, its pier and hurricanes, his role as a “facilitator” rather than a commander with staff, and of the nature of the job.
“In the role that we play, whether it’s a manager of a city, where it’s elected officials, you’re going to make decisions that some of them are right, some of them will be wrong,” he said. “I understand that. What I can say is that the decisions that I make are made for the best reasons that I can make them, and if I’m wrong, so be it: I’ll make a change. a charge. And that’s part of what this job is. In the public eye, you’re constantly challenged, and probably what this job is the other guys, you’re constantly challenged. And if you cannot adjust to that, you’re not going to last long.”
Speaking to the commission this evening when the interim manager item finally came up for discussion and action, at 8:30 p.m., after Abels had been made to wait three hours in his seat as the commission went through other items, he told the panel that he was taking the job because he was “fascinated” by the city’s challenges. The word has rarely been used in conjunction with city issues, but was not a surprise from Abels, who appears to relish his academic side. He also spoke of a few personal limitations due to health matters involving family members, and that would occasionally limit his trips to the city.
Commissioner Debbie Phillips had met with Abels for more than an hour ahead of today’s meeting. “He’s more than capable,” she said. Commissioner Eric Cooley checked his Abels’s background. “long tenure, no terminations, no drama,” Cooley said. “He was my number one choice before when we interviewed and that even solidified more.”
Scott Spradley, a candidate for city commission–the election will be decided on March 7–said Abels “checks all the boxes for what we need right now,” including on an inter-personal level. “I’ve talked with others who met with him extensively. Everyone is impressed with him, and he’s available and he appears to desire the job.” Rick Belhumeur, another candidate, said Abels had been his top pick all along. “He has passion for our city and has extensive locale experience that will meet our needs.”
Spradley also noted that the six-month deadline will be good for the commission, giving it a goal to have a new manager in place by then, and keeping it from dragging its feet.
Gina Weiss says
Congratulations Mike Abels a good decision made, he sounds like a humble nice guy who has lots of experience under his belt.