The Flagler Beach City Commission this evening opted to narrow down a list of five candidates to three and pause before making a decision on hiring an interim manager to fill the seat of William Whitson, whom the commission fired last week.
Jerry Cameron, the former Flagler County administrator who’d lobbied three commissioners and already had the blessing of the fourth to get in the door, was eliminated. So was Kim Carney, the former Flagler Beach city commissioner who put in her name this afternoon, but did not show up at the meeting: the commission chairman called her name when it was her turn to speak.
Going into the meeting, the city’s current acting manager, Rick McFadden, the building inspector, was also a candidate for the interim position, but he withdrew.
In the end, it wasn’t close: the three candidates who made the cut sharply cut themselves away from the rest and spoke as if they could take the reins immediately and with significant familiarity with the sort of issues the city faces. Cameron has county, not city, experience.
The short-list approach was Commissioner James Sherman’s idea: he proposed a pause until Feb. 23, with a narrowed field. The candidates would then meet with department heads, the public–in a town home style setting–and commissioners (one on one). The commission would vote on its choice on Feb. 23. “This is a decision that’s beyond us,” Sherman said.
The three choices: John Drago, Mike Abels and Katrina Powell. All commissioners and the mayor picked the trio for their shortlist, with no hesitation, and one exception: Commission Chairman Ken Bryan, who picked Cameron instead of Drago.
The commission gave each candidate as much time as he or she chose, whether at the podium or by phone (two candidates called in). The candidates summed up their careers and intentions and took a few questions from the commissioners. Thats segment filled most of the 120 minutes of what had been billed as a workshop.
Drago, a former city manager in Longwood, held the podium for 15 minutes, getting into the details of his managerial method, his interactions with commissioners, his approach with budgeting season (he’d start in January with planning sessions and meetings with commissioners, for a budget to be approved in September).
Abels was a city manager for 20 years, notably in Palm Bay and in Deland. He spoke with deliberate precision, focusing exclusively on municipal issues in ways that displayed a breadth of knowledge and experiences, each time illustrated with examples from his long history. He described his role with staff primarily as a facilitator to ensure “good communication and good cooperation.”
To a question from Commissioner Jane Mealy about disaster management, he recalled managing his city during the year of the three hurricanes (2004), plus a tornado through DeLand, enabling him to develop close relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and other agencies, forming a local “crisis team” that met to determine “what was the crisis of the moment.” Coastal erosion? “Not so much coastal,” he said.
Powell is a former city manager in Longwood (“right behind Mr. Drago”), Fort Meade and in Michigan, and a resident of Ormond by the Sea. She broad said her experience suited her for the interim position, with experience in the military for 20 years and work in non-profits and local government, including lobbying and FEMA training to assist in emergency responses. “I believe in being collaborative, team-forward and fluid, I like to make difficult decisions when necessary in a time-sensitive manner,” she said. And she still has connections at FEMA and the local district of the state Department of Transportation, two musical notes to commissioners’ ears. She was also an assistant manager in Deltona during the season of the three hurricanes, when the city got more than 90 inches of rain and threatened over 1,000 homes.
Before Cameron spoke, Bryan claimed Cameroon did not “lobby” for the position, that Bryan himself called Cameron to seek his interest (as was previously reported). But of course Cameron lobbied: no other candidate had the chance to sit down with commissioners ahead of Whitson’s firing and today’s meeting, as Cameron did with Mealy and Commissioner Deborah Phillips, or have a conversation, as he did with Sherman.
“I’ve met with people who have asked to meet with me,” Cameron claimed–again inaccurately: Mealy never asked to meet with him, but was surprised to find Cameron at a restaurant where the owner, John Lulgjuraj (owner of Flagler Beach’s Oceanside Bar and Grill) had told her he had someone she should meet. Mealy felt ambushed. She and Cameron had lunch anyway, and Cameron made his pitch, without explicitly saying he was seeking the manager’s job, though he didn’t need to: There was no reason for him to meet at length with the commissioners other than for the job.
Cameron, who was first up, did not have much to say today at the podium beyond complaining about how he’s been portrayed in the press, other than to tell commissioners what they already know: that an interim position has its own particulars and that he’s done that sort of work a couple of times. The implication was somewhere along the lines of you’d be lucky to have me. He spent much of the rest of the session, as other candidates spoke, staring at the floor from his seat. County Commissioner Dave Sullivan, chiefly instrumental in bringing Cameron to Flagler County a few years ago, sat with him for a while before leaving halfway through the meeting.
John McCue spoke second. He worked some 30 years in government, starting in Miami Dade and serving as county manager and city manager in different Florida communities before retiring two years ago. He’s not interested in consulting or a long-term management contract, “but I still have a lot to offer to a community,” he said. He lives in Orange City near DeLand.
Rick Belhumeur, one of five candidates in the March 7 municipal election, told commissioners they were “going about this all wrong,” by hiring only by looking at resumes, if that. “The last woman that got up said she heard about it at 2:30 this afternoon, so how can you that quickly make a decision.” He proposed retaining an acting city manager, giving commissioners time to study the applicants.
Scott Spradley, another of the candidates, proposed waiting at least a week and giving the candidates a chance at least to meet with the commissioners before a decision is made.
Former Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth noted Abels’s side career as a professor and his vast experience as manager, but also said she was very impressed by Powell, as seemed to be the public consensus.
A member of the public asked the commissioner whether the chairman could, once he leaves his seat (Bryan chose not to run again, so the next commission meeting will be his last) be the interim.
“I’m not committing suicide,” Bryan said.