A dream come true for new county manager


Alachua County Manager Betty Baker on Friday, July 26, 2013.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 7:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 7:24 p.m.

As Betty Baker got ready for her first day as county manager, she put on her mother's diamond ring as a memento.

She tried to put on her mother's purple earrings too, but they kept falling off. Over her entire government career, this was the day she had been working toward.

She couldn't bring herself to sit in her new office on her first day, which was a week ago.

"And Tuesday morning, I came in and I sat down and I said, ‘You're in the big chair now. The county is in your hands.' " Every dream she had came true when she sat in that chair, she said.

North Florida is Baker's home. She was born and raised in the Panhandle town of Chattahoochee, and her first job working for the state was as a dishwasher. From the day she started, she knew she needed to go back to school and establish a career for herself.

When she was around 28, she began her studies at Florida State University and eventually earned a bachelor's degree in criminology. As a single mother with three children, she worked her way through school.

To Baker, now 64, education truly is the key to improving one's life. "I just believe that, because it happened for me," she said.

Baker ended up doing clinical social work for a while and later applied for a program aimed at helping mid-career women launch careers in municipal government. She didn't think she had a chance.

When her letter came in the mail, she didn't open it for a week and a half because she feared it would be a rejection. It wasn't, and her children urged her to go.

She studied in New York City and spent nine months working for Cincinnati's city government as part of the program, and then she was hired as its equal opportunity officer. She spent almost 15 years in Cincinnati, serving as the human resources director for much of that time.

When she got a job as the administrative services director in Alachua County in 2002, it was a homecoming for her — one that was worth a hefty pay cut to take.

Former County Manager Randall Reid let her work on government projects outside her job description, which helped hone her skills in a variety of areas. Eventually, she was promoted to deputy county manager.

Becoming manager of a city or county government remained her top career goal over the years. But when she realized she was poised to become Alachua County's new leader, she questioned whether she should take on that responsibility when she was so close to the end of her government career. She is in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) and is set to retire in November 2014.

Her answer, obviously, was yes.

Although everyone who works for the county knows her because she's been there for more than a decade, she pointed out that they don't know her as county manager.

"So this is a beginning for all of us," she said.

In her limited run as county manager, she plans to do her best to help improve the government's organizational structure and raise employee morale.

She plans to turn her gaze inward and do administrative analyses of certain policies to determine if they are the most effective ways for the county to serve its residents.

In her first memo as county manager, she announced several interim appointments for senior-level positions as she begins the recruitment processes to fill those vacancies.

She primarily appointed people who either plan to retire in the near future or are uninterested in filling these positions permanently as a way to level the playing field for other employees who may want to apply for those jobs.

That is key to restoring employee confidence in the system, she said. Morale is low right now and needs to be buoyed.

John Shirey, the city manager of Sacramento, Calif., and the former city manager of Cincinnati, said Baker was even-handed and fair in all her dealings with employees when she was the Ohio city's HR director.

"She's easygoing. She's not easily flustered," he said. "She remains calm and collected at all times, and so I really appreciated those qualities in her."

Baker's predecessor in Alachua County, Richard Drummond, said his job would have been very difficult without her support and praised her as a "consummate professional."

"She knows everything and everyone and just steps up to the plate and offers her ideas and services," he said.

Employees can expect their opinions to be heard, although Baker won't hesitate in dealing with challenging issues.

"She'll make her own decision," he said. "She's not going to waffle, but she will seek advice and suggestions and recommendations from all the key people around her."

Wendell Young, president pro tem of the Cincinnati City Council, worked under Baker in Ohio. He said she is a fair but demanding boss who considers her employees' problems to be her own.

"In fact, she's the best person I ever worked for, and that's the truth," he said. "She's the prototype of what a good boss should be."

Baker is the first African-American and the first woman to serve permanently as county manager for Alachua County, which she said honors and humbles her. But she doesn't think those characteristics had any factor in her hiring, nor will it be a factor in any of her hiring decisions.

"I just don't believe any board member said, ‘Oh, Betty is a black female. Let's hire her,' " she said.

She said she will ensure the county's recruitment process is fair and presents a level playing field for all applicants, but the best candidate will be chosen regardless of his or her race or other characteristics.

She doesn't consider herself a role model because she is the county's first female black manager either.

"I don't carry that as a burden. I'm humbled and that's it," she said.

She gives the same advice to all young people, regardless of their skin color: With tenacity and hard work, you will get to where you want to be, she said.

For Baker, that has absolutely been true.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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