As an evaluation for the chief executive of a local government, that of City Manager William Whitson, his first since his arrival here in May 2021, is not a triumph. It evokes words like middling, mediocre, passable, decent, tolerable. In the exact words of the evaluations themselves, they average out to the low end of “Meets the Job Standards.”
Whitson scored an average of 3.32 points on a scale of 5, making it a C, with anything between 2 and 3 necessitating “improvement” and anything below that being deemed “unsatisfactory. He’d have had to get 4 or better to “exceed job standards,” and 4.5 or better to be “outstanding.”
Whitson’s evaluation is nowhere near the last and near-stellar evaluation of his predecessor, the late Larry Newsom, though Newsom was not evaluated during Covid, when his management took as fateful a downturn as his health. Still, for four years, Newsom largely kept the city commission a constructively dull, efficient, no-drama zone, in contrast with a few other local governments. The same can’t be said of Whitson’s tenure of late.
There were two outlying evaluations for Whitson. Jane Mealy, the only commissioner to rate Whitson above a 4 (a former teacher who on the commission has traditionally been a generous grader), she gave him a 4.37. Her support of Whitson has been as steady and vocal as Commissioner Eric Cooley’s criticism has been sharp and, lately, relentless. Cooley rated Whitson a 2.73.
But even excluding the two outliers, Whitson would remain in the middling range, and at an even lower end top boot: 3.21. That means Whitson is teetering either way on the kind of score that is not what a city would want for its $127,000 a year.
Even Ken Bryan, the commission chairman and next to Mealy, Whitson’s only other strong supporter on the commission, gave him a 3.08, only seven one hundredths of a point above Mayor Suzie Johnston’s 3.01, and equal to James Sherman’s. Sherman’s support of Whitson has been a tepid, wait-and-see kind.
Commissioner Deborah Phillips’s has been probationary. A retired banker and current business owner still exuding entirely dispassionate diligence with city business, she was the one who convinced the commission to place Whitson on probation a few weeks ago after a series of serious missteps that embarrassed commissioners. Yet she gave him his highest mark, next to Mealy’s: 3.67, suggesting the possibility of a lifeline if Whitson recognizes it, if he grabs it, and if he doesn’t squander it.
But there is somewhat of a disconnect between the commissioners’ evaluations and Whitson’s self-evaluation, a six-page, single-spaced document that reads like a buoyant State of the Union address by a president with Joe Biden’s approval rating.
Whitson acknowledges those couple of recent missteps–the failure to secure the July 4 fireworks, the failure to secure any share of a $734,000 tourism capital grant that had been out there for the taking since Whitson’s arrival. But besides that, he still thinks he has “a very good working relationship with members of the Commission.” (Of course, the sentence is craftily executed: he does not say which members, and it could be read to mean certain members, as certain other members have felt to be the case. Namely: Cooley and Johnston).
He gives himself top marks in managing his staff, creativity (his team has “basically re-invented the First Friday event,” he wrote) inter-governmental relations, though a recent emergency workshop on the sudden loss of sand north of the beach portrayed a more chaotic and certainly no seamless relations with the county on that score, and he gave himself top marks on city finances and public relations
He has unquestionably been accessible and willing to take media interviews, as he notes in his self-evaluation, even when the subjects are unpleasant. But he’s quick with the “no comments” at times, his skin can be translucently thin (he worked for eight years with his mentor, then-City Manager Ken Parker, who essentially got him the job in Flagler Beach, and who could be intolerably imperious and patronizing as a manager), and he confuses granting interviews with transparency, when he still keeps information a lot closer to the vest than necessary–even with commissioners.
Bryan pointed out elements of that thin skin when he asked Whitson in his evaluation to “discontinue deflection and not always accepting responsibility for things that go ‘south,'” and to “modify the manner in which he projects a negative or condescending attitude during commission meetings when called out on an issue.”
On the other hand, Bryan noted he would “like the manager to stand up and defend his position on some issues and document any issues and individuals who [purport] to threaten or criticize when he is doing his job and is correct in what he is doing.” The language Bryan chose was telling: even in directing the manager toward a more positive direction, Bryan’s words point to an undercurrent of conflict. To Bryan, in sum, Whitson has all the goods, but he’s not yet shown them to full effect.
Cooley mulled making a motion to fire Whitson in the weeks before the evaluation, so his scores reflect a particular animus toward the manager, including a few 1’s along the way. “This has been a challenging year for you with things like lingering COVID effects and macro changes to the employment landscape,” Cooley wrote, “however it is your job as city manager to navigate those challenges and I feel that this has been a area of underperformance. The city is too far behind on standards, projects, and budgeted items with no resolution brought to the table to date. There has also been numerous instances of consensus items from meetings not being started or completed with sense of urgency. [Observation] is you are picking and [choosing] tasks vs timely completion of direction.” But he left Whitson with a lifeline of his own: “I hope there is a renewed focus on a sense of urgency regarding direction, projects, and fiscal conservation this coming year. Thank you for all you do.”
mealy, who had once called Newsom the best manager the city had had in her memory, reflected on what amounted to Newsom’s decline at the end of his tenure, and what he left behind, as the difficulties Whitson had to surmount. She sees brighter days ahead, but notes: “I would like Mr. Whitson to not use expressions that resemble, ‘I don’t have time to deal with that'” when he deals with the public. “Such responses only lead to more negativity among the residents and are counterproductive.” She asked for more reports on his work.
To Phillips, Whitson “needs to be set up for success” and to delegate: “City Manager cannot do everything. It is important that he builds a strong staff of department heads who cannot only handle day to day tasks but planned projects,” Phillips wrote. She also wants more transparency, pointing out that meeting packets are not always complete. “Not having complete and factual information makes it difficult to discuss and be properly educated on agenda items. We need to have informed conversation at our meetings, and by not having all the information can show distrust.”
But if Sun Tzu neglected to include a chapter in his Art of War–perhaps intentionally–it is on leaving things out in meeting packets: it’s the tried and true tactic of local government executives who want to control meetings, control public responses and prevent media from having information before they are themselves ready to present it on their terms. It can skirt the spirit, if not quite the letter, of the open records law, though it can also trip up the very executives trying to control the message, as was the case with Whitson’s handling of the Funky Pelican dumpster pad issue a few weeks ago.
Sherman commended Whitson for his accessibility, but he limited his criticism or praise on several other categories because of his short tenure on the commission. He was elected only in March. Where he could praise him, he did: “One of the areas that I feel Mr. Whitson has been doing a job that exceeds is in the imitative department. Since becoming a commissioner, I have noticed that he has taken the initiative with governmental matters to ensure Flagler Beach complies with the state and local government regulations before specified times lines. An example that I can think of is our waster water treatment facility.” But like his colleagues, Sherman asked for more transparency in the form of regular reports.
Johnston, who found several points of praise–his lobbying of state and federal governments, his internal management, his initiative–also emphasized that point: She wrote that she’d “like to see William implement a live document with City Projects and Strategic Plan objectives with a update on current steps of action as well as current status (In progress, Completed, on Hold) for residents and Commission to view.”
Whitson in his self-evaluation papers included a list of the $14.5 million in grants “since May 2021,” but the statement can be misleading: the $2.5 million grant from Covid funding happened to hall on his watch, but every local government got its share. It was cities’ equivalent of individuals’ stimulus checks. The $10 million grant for the pier through the Federal Emergency Management Administration was the fruition of Newsom’s work, itself the result of Hurricane Matthew’s damage of the pier: it was not a matter of whether the city would get the money, but when. Again, it is falling on Whitson’s watch. Those two grants account for 86 percent of the funding Whitson’s document states occurred “since May 2021.” He also lists three pending grants totaling almost $2 million.
The full evaluations, including Whitson’s and his accompanying documents, are below.
I feel for this new guy as a new hire, he’s always going to be the reason Flagler Beach isn’t the greatest beach on the planet for Tourism. He’s really fighting the longer tenured & mediocre one’s that think they’ve done a superlative job in Flagler Beach ? So he’ll most likely get chased or fired out. Get blamed that a community with $ 25K doesn’t buy a July 4th Fireworks Show in 2022 that costs $ 100K anywhere else on planet Earth ?
Projecting a condescending attitude…takes one to know one.
Concerned Citizen says
So much drama for a small town Commission.
They spend half their time sleeping with each other,fighting amongst themselves and pointing fingers. No wonder nothing ever gets done. This County as a whole has some of the worst politicians in the area. And needs a complete revamp.
The sad part is some of these positions are sworn and required an oath to do the job. That means AT ALL TIMES. Not when it’s just convenient or profitable.
Anywhere else a lousy performance evaluation means a short tenure. And by the way while we are holding the City Manager accountable who is holding the Mayor and Commission accountable? Accountability goes both ways.
Remember these short comings next election cycle. As I’ve said before stop electing the same and expecting different. It doesn’t work.