The Flagler County Commission this evening appointed Heidi Petito interim manager for at least the next three months, or long enough to shepherd the county through budget season, but likely for much longer, the commission being uninterested in laboring over a successor. It was a surprise: Jorge Salinas, brought on as chief of staff in January, was widely expected to be named interim. Instead, he now says he is no longer interested in the top job.
Petito, the county’s long-time facilities director and its co-chief of staff since January, has also been considered by the administration and the commission a potential administrator, pre-dating Salinas. While Salinas was chosen with the understanding, between outgoing Administrator Jerry Cameron and the commission, that he could be the next administrator, today’s appointment was a nod toward the county’s need for a degree of continuity and institutional history as it navigates the budget process, which can be arcane and challenging to someone who hasn’t gone through it year after year, as Petito has.
A little history, too: Petito is the first woman to lead the county administration in a county where only the school board and Flagler Beach have previously had women as top executives. Palm Coast and Bunnell are still waiting.
Petito has always had Cameron’s trust. She had former Administrator Craig Coffey’s trust too, rising to facilities director the year of his arrival in 2007 after she’d been a public works accountant. She’d worked as a civilian in police administrations previously. She takes the top job with none of Coffey’s insecurities and none of Cameron’s ego, and where both men could be truculent or petty in their antagonisms, Petito has built a reputation as a less abrasive, more collegial director: if sarcasm was a Coffey specialty and pomposity a Cameron one, Petito is the more recognizable Everywoman, unaffected and tempered. Her husband, Don Petito, was the long-time county fire chief edged out of his job last year in an arrangement that would ease Heidi Petito’s way up in the administration. Yet she had not been among the 16 applicants for the interim post two and a half years ago, when Cameron was.
Petito has no four-year college degree, but then neither did Cameron, a University of South Carolina drop-out who nevertheless let people refer to him as “professor Cameron.” The commission recognized Cameron’s two-and-a-half-year service as interim with a farewell proclamation earlier in the meeting, fawning even for a commission with hands impressively callused from back-patting.
“We have two people that are ready, and could take over any organization this size tomorrow and do a great job,” Cameron said this evening. “We have been in a transition period. And during that transition period, we have discussed with core leadership and we discussed with Heidi Petito and Jorge Salinas, and we believe that Jorge was really qualified to take over this on an interim basis. And the closer we got, the more that Jorge believed that he was correctly situated as a number two. He developed a great admiration for the abilities of Heidi Petito. I agree with him that Heidi has a long standing record of accomplishment here. She has grown up from the ranks. She understands every portion of what we do here. And she is willing to step in as the interim administrator for you. My recommendation would be that you would appoint her as a three month interim, until the end of September, which is when our budget will be in place. Both Heidi and Jorge are familiar and involved with the budgeting process.”
Cameron described the next period as a three-month interview, giving the commission and Petito a chance to evaluate whether she should stay on, presumably as the permanent administrator, or whether the commission will decide to conduct a search, now that Salinas has pulled himself out of the running.
Commissioners had no objections. Commissioner Dave Sullivan invited Petito to speak to the commission directly about the choice.
“I am extremely honored that you guys have the confidence in me to move the organization forward,” Petito said. “Under the direction and the path that Mr Cameron has set forward I think that we’ve got a great team, an extraordinary team, and I look forward to continuing moving the organization in that direction, even if it is on just an interim basis at the pleasure of the board, and will serve any capacity necessary for Flagler County.”
Commissioner Andy Dance, the only commissioner among the five who has had any interest in a more deliberative process in choosing the next administrator, interim or otherwise, said of Petito that there are “few that have your institutional knowledge and history of the county, so that is definitely going to continue to help us moving forward.” Dance, a former school board member for a dozen years, is also the only one of the five who has taken the task of finding a top executive, doing so several times during his tenure at the school board. It was not a surprise this evening that he again reminded a commission that has been inexplicably indifferent on that score of preferable steps ahead.
“If we can continue to work in the background to prepare a potential search parameters to take the instance to where at the end of three months, that’s how we go, we’re not starting three months down the road but we can start the planning process now, and even if we don’t use it, it’s there in our back pocket ready to go.”
As has been the case every time Dance has made similar suggestions on at least two occasions before, his fellow commissioners ignored his suggestion as Commissioner Greg Hansen moved directly to naming Petito. Only one member of the public spoke–Jane Gentile-Youd, the often acerbic Plantation Bay resident and current commission candidate in whose eyes there are only heroes and horrors. Petito this evening was among her heroes (as was Cameron, whom she’d hugged earlier).
Sheriff Rick Staly, who was in the audience, is the constitutional officer who has worked the most with Petito because of her responsibilities with facilities. Those responsibilities have frequently intersected with the sheriff’s spaces, since the county is the sheriff’s landlord, not always happily: Petito’s institutional history includes the entirety of the history of the former, and eventually doomed, Sheriff’s Operations Center off State Road 100, going back to the building’s purchase in 2013 and its transformation from a hospital to an administrative building.
The sheriff had to evacuate it in June 2018 after dozens of employees complained of sick-building-syndrome-like illnesses. The sheriff has been working with Petito and others in the administration on plans for the next operation center, now that the commission has finally settled on a location, an architect and a contractor. But today the administration revealed that a project already plagued by innumerable delays will be delayed yet again, with a move-in date now not to happen before late summer of 2022. In other words, the sheriff will have spent more than a full term out of his headquarters.
Staly was gracious about Petito’s appointment. “I look forward to working with Heidi, I congratulate her,” he said this evening. “I was a little surprised, because probably like everybody, everybody thought Jorge Salinas was the heir apparent. But obviously something changed.”