The search for a county administrator is like dating — the candidates want to make sure the county is the right fit, and commissioners want to make sure they find the right person for the job, says the former executive director of the Florida Association of Counties.
“It’s a courtship,” said Chris Holley, who led FAC for 10 years after more than 30 years as an administrator and manager for both counties and cities in Florida. “The ideal situation is you find the candidate that really wants to be there, and the commission finds a candidate that really wants to be there and has attributes they want. The courtship lasts for a while.”
Electing to not extend Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker’s contract, which expires Jan. 29, 2018, the county will now proceed with a national search to find Hunzeker’s successor — a decision made in a 4-3 vote Tuesday. Hunzeker was first appointed Manatee County administrator in November 2006.
Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Hunzeker said he plans to remain in his position for another 13 months.
“I have 1,700 employees and I have commitments to them,” Hunzeker said. “I intend on fulfilling the remainder of my contract.”
Hiring the county administrator is an important decision — perhaps the commission’s most important hire, said Holley, who has served on multiple selection committees in the past. Some communities reach the end of the process and aren’t happy with results, while others hire an administrator who only lasts a few months.
“To find the right fit is not easy,” he said. “You want to do it right. You want the selection to be successful. You want the person hired to be a long-term employee for the county and meet the goals the commission has set. All of that is hard work and an important decision.”
As Manatee County embarks on the national search in 2017, Betsy Benac, who voted against the national search Tuesday, will be chairwoman of the commission.
“I just believe it was premature,” she said after the vote. “It happened so quickly. We didn’t really have time to get input from the community. My goal is to try to maintain a level of confidence in the county moving forward that we are doing things in a positive way.”
When starting on the search, Benac said she is trying to follow an organized approach.
“I want to make sure that when we are looking at the position, we understand what we are looking for and what some of the goals of the other commissioners are looking for in hiring a new administrator,” she said. “My goal now as chair is making sure it is a positive experience.”
One of the upcoming decisions the county commission will have to make in the weeks ahead is whether they will use the human resources department or hire a recruiter, which can run as much as $30,000, according to Holley.
“There are national companies that recruit top executives for counties and cities,” he said. “That is a decision that the commission will have to make.”
Early on, the commission will also have to determine what they are looking for in an administrator, Holley said.
“You want your commission to have a conversation about the attributes they are looking for in a manager,” he said. “That results in a portfolio of an ideal candidate. When you do end up recruiting, you are going to issue ads. In some cases, someone prepares a written document that helps you in recruiting. You are marketing Manatee County. You are putting your best foot forward.”
An excellent quality of life, the level of growth and the area’s stature as coastal community are among some of the potential selling points of Manatee County, Holley said.
“You are going to put an ad together or a marketing piece that says Manatee County is looking for the ideal candidate, and the ideal candidate has these traits,” he said. “To get the right people to respond to the recruitment, you need to be prepared to market yourself and then hopefully you get the best and brightest around the country to respond to your solicitation.”
‘A daunting task’
A county like Manatee County will probably get between 50 to 60 applicants so the commission will have to decide whether they want a peer review committee, county staff or the commissioners themselves to evaluate the applications, Holley said.
“That’s a daunting task to go through that many folks with interest,” he said.
Then the commission will have to decide the structure of the interview process, whether one-on-one interviews with each commissioner, a public interview or both, Holley said.
“It can take six months to a year to do it right,” he said of the entire process. “You want a successful transition. You want a team leader that will be well received by the staff there and work hard for them. You want a good communicator, for not only the commission but for the community.”
The commission needs to make sure they get the right person for the job, Benac said.
“I think Manatee County is a great place and somebody would be lucky to be here,” she said. “We need to find that right person.”
In the transition period, Holley said he would expect that Hunzeker will “work very hard to make sure this is a smooth transition.”
“He’s a great manager,” Holley said. “He has served multiple counties. I would expect that Ed is going to do his best to keep the morale up and keep the employees focused on the task at hand.”
Regardless, it is a transition.
“There will be angst,” Holley said. “As humans, we don’t like change. If it is done right, it can be a smooth transition.”
Maintaining the morale among county staff is absolutely important, Benac said.
“We’ve got a great staff and they’ve been operating under Mr. Hunzeker for almost 10 years,” she said. “We want to make sure that they don’t feel that this was a reflection on their performance. It’s an opportunity to move forward, and that’s what we are going to do.”