County manager search offered lessons
Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
With Deputy County Manager Betty Baker poised to become the new county manager, the search process is drawing to a close as Alachua County commissioners and community members alike file away lessons learned for the next time around.
The months-long search was marked by considerable community involvement and unsuccessful negotiations with three consecutive candidates before the commission voted Tuesday to begin talks with Baker for the county's top job.
Baker is in the Deferred Retirement Option Program and will conclude her career with the county at the end of November 2014.
"Well, in my opinion, we really didn't need to have the search because it was quite evident that there were people in place that could have very easily been the manager of the county — Betty Baker in particular," said Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP and a vocal participant in the search process. "It all worked out good in the end."
Foxx said the commission, by selecting Baker, sent a message about the role — or in this case the lack thereof — that race plays in a hiring decision like this.
"That's sending our community, the county, a very strong message that things are changing," she said. "People are being judged by what they can do rather than the color of their skin."
Finalists James Bourey of Greenville, S.C., Stockton Whitten from Brevard County and Charles Oliver of Pensacola entered negotiations with the county after interviewing for the position in May.
Bob Murray & Associates conducted the nationwide search that took applications from those finalists, among others. When the board selected the firm in December, the company's anticipated fee was $16,500 plus as much as $7,500 in additional expenses that did not include travel costs for finalists who visited Gainesville for interviews.
Bourey withdrew from negotiations to pursue another position; Whitten ended talks to remain at his post as deputy county manager in Brevard County; and the County Commission decided to conclude negotiations with Oliver after receiving his counteroffer and instead offered Baker the job.
Bourey's counteroffer was met with concern from Commissioners Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV and Lee Pinkoson, both of whom voted in favor of a motion to end negotiations with him after receiving his response to the board's initial proposal. That motion failed.
Pinkoson said at the time he was worried by the leadership style he felt was reflected in Bourey's counteroffer, which asked for some benefits that went above what employees usually get.
Foxx said she, like Pinkoson, was concerned by the counteroffer proposed by No. 1 choice Bourey.
Bourey withdrew from negotiations in early June, two days after the board approved its own counteroffer 3-2 with Chestnut and Pinkoson in dissent.
Commissioners discussed the negotiations process at a subsequent meeting, during which Commissioners Mike Byerly and Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson expressed concerns over how the negotiations had been handled.
"I think the top-ranked candidate was badly treated by the commission and the community," Byerly said at the time. "We hounded the person out of the county, and I'm not real proud of the way that happened."
Hutchinson, who said both the county and the candidate made mistakes during negotiations, said during the meeting that some residents urged commissioners not to go with Bourey by impugning his qualifications.
Looking back on those discussions, Foxx said it is important for residents to be involved in the process when the county is looking to fill such a prestigious and demanding position. She said she believes that's what she and other residents did in voicing their opinions regarding Bourey and the other candidates.
"I think it's our discretion as taxpayers and voters to scrutinize anybody that's going to come and lead our county," she said. "I think it's good when citizens have their input, and if they have any questions or anything, then they should bring it to the forefront. I mean, that's democracy."
The commission never got a chance to consider a counteroffer from No. 2 choice Whitten because he dropped out of the running before that point to remain in Brevard County.
Members of the local black community, including Foxx, were vocal in their support for Whitten throughout the search process.
"I just didn't want them to select a candidate just because of their race. I wanted someone that was well-qualified and was African-American," she said. Whitten fit that bill.
It was "very disappointing" to see Whitten back out of negotiations at the last minute after residents had put so much faith in him as a candidate, Foxx said.
Whitten told Florida Today he felt remaining in Brevard County was best for him and his family, according to a June 22 article. Although he thought he was the best-qualified individual in the candidate pool, he was unsure he would have the full support of all commissioners, he told the paper.
"Whitten told Florida Today that he was a little concerned about how politicized the job search went in Alachua County, with commissioners there divided between himself and the other candidate," according to the article.
Oliver, the commission's third-ranked finalist, began negotiating with the county after Whitten withdrew. He requested the updated contract the commission had offered to Bourey in a 3-2 vote, which included a salary increase from its initial offer of $160,000 to $165,000, although he allowed for the elimination of Bourey's airfare provision.
Chestnut said he felt he remained consistent in not accepting Oliver's counteroffer because he already had voted against it with Bourey.
"I just wanted to make sure we kept the process consistent and that we treated all candidates the same way," he said, noting he felt the board did that by offering the same initial contract to all three finalists.
The process became flawed when the commission set the base salary at $160,000, said Chestnut, who felt from the start it was a lowball figure. Next time, Chesnut said he would prefer the county not set a salary prior to negotiations.
Setting a rate before negotiations limits the commission in its efforts to reach an agreement that will bring a highly qualified candidate to the county, Chestnut said. Bourey was making about $191,000 in the private sector, Chestnut said, so it was unlikely he would take a contract offering around $30,000 less.
Commissioner Susan Baird said the first and foremost difficulty for the commission was that most of its members had never done a county manager search before.
Baird said she doesn't think the board followed through with its established procedure because commissioners voted to start talks with Baker immediately rather than send Oliver a counteroffer the way the board had with Bourey.
Oliver was her top choice, she said, but she was willing to negotiate with Bourey and Whitten as a team player. Baird was the only dissenting vote in the board's decision to negotiate with Baker and end talks with Oliver.
"They were ready to go with another candidate because they just didn't want his style or they didn't want him, and I thought that was disingenuous," she said. "If they didn't want him, they should have made that clear even sooner."
During the next county manager search, the board should identify parameters not only for salary but for the qualities that commissioners desire in a candidate early on, Baird said. If the commission wants someone with an environmental background, for example, it should specify that up front.
Although she was disappointed in the process, Baird said she is more than happy to work with Baker. She would have preferred hiring Oliver so they could have both his and Baker's expertise at hand, but you have to "work with what you have and make it work," she said.
Cynthia Moore Chestnut, a former county commissioner who was involved as a resident during the search, said she wouldn't have agreed initially with establishing a salary for potential candidates to consider but thinks that might be a good approach in the future.
"I think if you put all of the cards on the table — this is the type of person we're looking for; this is the type of involvement; and here's our salary — then everything is on the table for the candidate to review," she said.
Byerly expressed in a prior interview with The Sun a similar interest in establishing contract parameters earlier in the process, which was a tactic Hutchinson suggested during the search.
Questions about a candidate's qualifications should be thoroughly addressed by the recruiting company next time, Cynthia Chestnut said, referring to concerns raised in the midst of the process regarding Whitten's credentials.
Whitten's resume listed a Master of Public Administration from the University of Florida when he actually had a Master of Arts with a certificate in public administration. But UF staff members told the county it is common for graduates to refer to the degree as an MPA. That could have been resolved earlier, Cynthia Chestnut said.
The search didn't go as expected, Cynthia Chestnut said, but she said she thinks it ended up a win-win for the county with Baker's selection.
"I think for the community she offers stability," she said of Baker. "I think she has the total support of the employees, and I think she has the confidence of the commission."
Cynthia Chestnut said she liked the transparency of the search process and the commission's emphasis on seeking community input.
"We were following every inch of the process," she said.
Baker's hiring as county manager, which is pending negotiations with the county, puts the commission on the road for a future search in which everyone will have a better idea of how best to approach it, Cynthia Chestnut said.
"I think it was a well-intentioned search, and by that I mean that I think that the commission was committed to finding the best candidate possible," Cynthia Chestnut said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.