Had there been any doubt that the Board of Manatee County Commissioners has moved past dysfunction and divisiveness, the board proved otherwise last week. The sharp split over the dismissal of county Administrator Ed Hunzeker by not renewing his contract remains a source of contention on the board.
And the community has yet to hear a point-by-point explanation by the four board members who voted against retaining Hunzeker after his contract expires Jan. 29, 2018 — except for the meaningless excuse that it’s time for change. Why is it time? Has Hunzeker failed to be a strong and successful leader as he’s demonstrated time and time again over his 11 years as county administrator?
He’s worked diligently to instill his “mantra” of accountability, civility and ethics — his ACE philosophy, as he calls it. The county now serves as a business-friendly, customer service government, something lacking before his tenure. His team of department directors speak very well of him. How he fell into disfavor with four commissioners remains a mystery.
Last week during the commission’s regular Tuesday meeting and a Thursday work session, the board again confirmed the obvious by reigniting the tension among commissioners. The four votes effectively ousting Hunzeker came from Vanessa Baugh, Robin DiSabatino, Steve Jonsson and Charles Smith. Those opposing a national search to find his replacement were Betsy Benac, Priscilla Whisenant Trace and Carol Whitmore.
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Curiously, Baugh put Hunzeker’s fate on December’s agenda, her final meeting as commission chair — as Trace mentioned Thursday in her first commission meeting: “I found that kind of weird that your last meeting as a chair you put that on the agenda.” Curious indeed.
Trace also cited her difficulty understanding the board acrimony. “The animosity that comes up every time this comes up has got to quit. I don’t understand it. It is personal ... and y’all don’t think he has the skills.”
But that is certainly not the case. Commissioners listed the desirable traits in a new administrator, with Trace observing those qualities match up with Hunzeker’s considerable skills — and she pointedly asked what he did wrong to deserve dismissal, other than this being a personal issue. No explanation was forthcoming.
In Thursday’s daylong strategic planning session, the facilitator, Barry Banther, called attention to the big challenge moving forward: “Any very capable administrator will pick up disunity and won’t take the job.” Any candidate would be remiss in not thoroughly checking out the future bosses and the board’s condition. It’s “fractured,” in DiSabatino’s word.
The new commission chair, Benac, pointed out another pronounced complication: “We have created a great deal of uncertainty in this community.” Doubt, indeed.
Instead of celebrating county government’s many accomplishments in 2016 as presented by Hunzeker on Tuesday, commissioners veered into the quagmire they created. Most department directors attended the planning session and some comments reflected their respect and confidence in Hunzeker. Past county commissioners and business leaders have lauded Hunzeker’s performance in the past.
Were the majority of commissioners dissatisfied with their inability to micro-manage the county administration when that is not their responsibility, and establishing policy is, according to state law? That’s been a problem in the past. Hunzeker’s eventual successor should be wary of that possibility, too.
Passage of the half-cent sales tax dedicated to infrastructure improvements tops county government’s 2016 achievements, and Hunzeker was instrumental in developing the winning strategy. Other progress includes a new ambulance crew in Parrish for quicker response times; the launch of a marine paramedic rescue program; a new community paramedic program designed to decrease emergency room visits and save money; and revisions to the land development code drawn up to stimulate the development of urban corridors.
Hunzeker enjoys working and leading county government, he has told this Editorial Board on several occasions. In 2013, he forfeited a small fortune — a $337,000 payout from the state retirement program — in order to remain on the job. Those commissioners cited his leadership, qualifications and success in putting the county on a positive track over his tenure. That commission unanimously pursued retaining Hunzeker.
“(Hunzeker’s) innovative leadership is almost unprecedented in Manatee County,” Larry Bustle, then a commissioner, said at that time. “I believe it’s truly beneficial to keep him on board and to continue our progress. The numerous examples of his leadership and management success have led to some huge cost savings and improved the way the county operates.”
Under his leadership, county government downsized significantly — cutting nearly 300 positions and slashing its operating budget $142 million, or about 25 percent. And Hunzeker managed to avoid deep service cuts to the community.
The county’s website gives kudos to his leadership, stating: “Manatee Board of County Commissioners hired Hunzeker as county administrator for his solid background in finance and his strong vision for the future of Manatee County. His intuition, approachability and intelligence make him a natural leader.”
Hunzeker’s success is undeniable, the reasons for his dismissal largely unknown. Four county commissioners owe the community an explanation.