The Debacle in DeBary: Please get it right. Please?

In recent weeks I’ve squawked – ad nauseum – about the importance of the city manager position to ensuring a stable, effective and responsive municipal government.

Unfortunately, it appears that the DeBary city council – a group that could damn sure use some stability in their lives – appears intent on mucking up the selection “process” (whatever it is) for their new manager once again.

To get a better understanding of just how this group thinks and works, I watched the proceedings of last week’s special council meeting.  Wow.

Trust me, it was an eye-opener.

For instance, the hostility between Mayor Clint Johnson and Councilwoman Lita Handy-Peters was palpable.

To the Mayor’s credit – he kept his emotions in check.

I can’t say the same for Councilwoman Handy-Peters.

During a discussion on whether or not the council wanted to formalize their stated intent to abandon development of the disputed 102 acres of conservation lands by resolution, Handy-Peters launched into a loopy, paper-waving tantrum (aimed squarely at the Mayor) that caused me to question her grip.

Frankly, for a minute there she looked like the unhinged Baby Jane Hudson screeching at sister Blanche.

Weird.

It appears to me Ms. Handy-Peters has snapped under the pressure of growing public scrutiny.

During her bizarre hissy, the Councilwoman kept wailing that she “never voted on anything!” (taking a very Nixonian tone) and only looked at “pretty pictures” of the proposed transit-oriented development – while wildly grasping for reassurance from the clueless and clearly uncomfortable Growth Management Director, Matt Boerger.

(Hey Lita, someone approved the taxpayer funds that purchased those “pretty pictures” from Littlejohn ($75,000+?), and if I’m not mistaken, didn’t the council vote to approve the TOD draft Master Plan in February?  But that’s for another day, eh?)

Clearly, this is an administration bent on self-destruction – or at least re-writing history – and while I recognize the psychological and organizational factors at play, for the life of me I can’t figure out how five ostensibly bright and civic-minded people could paint themselves into such a knotty position.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the quality of the people they surround themselves with.  Poor choices usually stem from bad information.

In my view, the council’s horrific collective experience over the past several months should double their resolve to “get it right” when selecting DeBary’s next City Manager.

I doubt this particular elected body will face a more important decision during their current term.

Obviously, strategic decision-making isn’t their long suit, so allow me to proffer the benefit of some hard-learned lessons that just might help:

I’ve seen – and been an active part of – some manically dysfunctional public administrations. I’m talking historic incompetence, palace intrigue, Machiavellian subterfuge, personal agendas, unethical conduct and small town political infighting that makes the issues in the Middle East look like a schoolyard skirmish – a real hell-broth of good old-fashioned hatred, fear and discontent.

The net result was that the people’s business went unaddressed and the administration of government (such as it was) was reduced to feckless cliques and shameless opportunists.  Staff morale was lower than whale turds, and smart people were busy looking for a new gig –  like rats throwing themselves off a burning garbage scow.

Sound familiar?

In my experience, the evaluation and selection process for essential governmental personnel – especially the city manager – is crucial to the overall health of any community.  Given the enormity of the power and influence afforded to the manager by charter, the position will naturally set the tone and tenor of the entire organization.

The city manager’s job is a hard dollar, even on a good day.

Rarely is so much personal responsibility and unchecked authority bestowed on one individual in the relatively close confines of a small municipal government.

Any career civil servant will tell you that nothing – and I mean nothing – destroys organizational effectiveness and public confidence quicker than an unethical chief executive.  And the unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of them out there – “managers in transition,” wandering the countryside with a bloated résumé and one good suit, stalking their next victim.

As the spineless Dan Parrott proved – when an unscrupulous city manager flees or is fired – it becomes a very expensive and time-consuming dilemma to sort out.  Especially for a small community desperately in need of strong leadership.

But with so much on the line, how can the council ensure the best choice for their constituents?

The short answer is – they can’t.

But smart elected officials can stack the odds in their favor.

Many communities utilize the services of a professional headhunter who, for a hefty fee, will assemble curricula vitae on a few presumably qualified candidates for review.  Absent the limited political insulation they provide; in my experience, these recruiters don’t really offer any real benefit.

In my view, a well-constructed job announcement placed in professional journals and city/county management associations can have equally beneficial results.  I also believe that keeping the process in-house gives staff an important personal investment in the process.

Many executive search firms carry the same baggage from Job-to-job, putting up perennially unsuccessful candidates until someone bites.  After all, their sales inventory is essentially people looking for work, and just like a fruit monger, they’re going to have a few rotten peaches in the barrel from time-to-time.

Other communities have employed the services of retired city managers – ubiquitously known as “range riders” – who help navigate the process of selecting and hiring the right chief executive.

Best I can tell, it appears the City of DeBary has taken a strange, two-pronged approach to filling their very real need for an experienced leader.

First, they want to appoint an interim manager who, for reasons I don’t fully understand, cannot be considered for the full-time position.  If they are looking for a short-term hatchet man to terminate city employees with dirty hands, I get it.  If not, why limit your options?

Next, a search will be conducted by a contracted executive recruiter for the interim manager’s permanent replacement.

Seems redundant – and ham-fisted – to me.

For all their talk about remaining transparent and faithful to the “process,” it doesn’t appear to me that the city council has any procedure in place at all.

For example, at last week’s special meeting the council voted to bring one candidate (out of the seven who applied) forward to interview for the interim position.

One.

The council’s preliminary choice appears to be Ronald McLemore, a veteran hand who most recently worked as the city manager of Cocoa Beach.  Before that, Mr. McLemore served as deputy city manager of operations for the City of Daytona Beach from 2009 to 2015.  He was also city manager of Winter Springs from 1996 to 2009.

During discussions on Wednesday evening, Ms. Handy-Peters was howling from the dais about the people’s demand for “transparency! Transparency! Transparency!”  I agree with her – if the City of DeBary needs anything right now it’s openness and honesty.

I’m just not sure how interviewing a single candidate accomplishes that?

In my view, the council should bring forward several top candidates for a public Q&A, perhaps an informal meet-and-greet with citizens at a neutral location in the community, coupled with meetings between the candidates, trusted department heads and key personnel from the city’s outside service providers.

It will be these staff members who have the greatest day-to-day interaction with the new manager, and they certainly have a vested interest in ascertaining the candidate’s management style and leadership qualities.

Once this process has reduced the qualified pool to two or three, the council should commission a thorough background investigation – preferably through an independent outside agency.

After all, a person’s past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.

This investigation should include an evaluation of open-source information, such as newspaper, internet and media reports of the candidate’s past service, interviews with former employers (including elected officials, peers, union representatives and subordinates), a review of personnel files and disciplinary reports,  personal and professional reference checks, verification of academic and professional credentials, a review of credit reports, criminal history, previous civil suits, audit reports, and a thorough comparative analysis of the individual’s résumé against the information discovered independently during the inquiry.

Several years ago, the City of Coral Gables, after an exhaustive and very expensive search, lost their newly appointed chief executive – who came complete with a master’s in business administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and a bachelor’s in business administration from Florida International University – after it was discovered he had child abuse charges, 14 tax liens, three suspended driver’s licenses and numerous personal bankruptcies in his background.

By having the good, the bad and the ugly of each candidate available for review, the elected officials have the benefit of forming specific questions, probing areas of concern, and getting a solid overview of the applicant’s experience, reputation and management philosophy.

It also ensures that each member of the council receives the same quantity, and quality, of data about each candidate.  That’s important.

From personal experience, I can tell you that this independent evaluation process – when done properly – is invaluable.  In my view, any potential city manager worth his or her salt will welcome a thorough vetting of their contribution potential – and their growth areas.

Also, under Florida’s public records laws, much of the background report will be open and available to members of the community, adding an important layer of clarity and openness to the process.

I have also found that informal public receptions (held outside City Hall) provide a chance for citizens and staff to personally interact with the candidates in a comfortable social setting.  This gives both decision-makers, and the community, a good opportunity to get to know the finalists’ individual personalities, sense of humor, and temperament.

In many cases, the candidates will introduce their husbands, wives or significant others at these relaxed gatherings.  After all, they will be a big part of the community as well.

In my view, the idea of selecting your most important asset based on a cursory interview with one candidate just doesn’t make sense.

Given the current atmosphere, the City of DeBary is going to have a hard time attracting quality applicants – and I suspect they will get more than their share of damaged goods applying for the permanent job.

After all, most qualified folks with options won’t be beating down the door to associate themselves with this grotesque disaster.

Why not take the time to do it right?

Regardless of how thorough the process, nothing can absolutely ensure a successful fit.  I get it.

But it helps.

Trust me, I have worked for city managers with advanced degrees who couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions on the heel – and I have worked for managers with little, if any, formal education who I would walk through fire with.

Ultimately, selecting the chief executive is an extremely difficult decision.

By getting the best possible information, through an open, honest and inclusive process, elected officials can make the best possible decision while avoiding the harsh criticism that invariably comes when constituents and stakeholders feel left out.

It is incumbent upon the DeBary City Council to get this one right.

Look, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that now is the time to put away the petty bickering, political theatrics, personality clashes and madcap publicity stunts and get on with the important business of selecting the community’s next leader.

Your constituents are depending on you.

 

(Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” 1962)

 

 

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