Polarization. Infighting. Combativeness. These are all words most often associated with Congress and Washington, D.C. as a whole. Hole would be a good description, as in pit. A pit nobody has found a way to escape. They just keep digging the hole deeper.
There is a measure of decorum missing in Manatee County, too. As Commissioner Vanessa Baugh stated at Tuesday’s commission meeting, “This board is not the board is was last year. We have issues. We are divided.” That observation is crystal clear to people attending commission meetings, especially when incivility emerges — as was center stage Tuesday in a few brief but telling moments.
Give commissioners credit. They’re stepping around egg shells — gingerly. On Tuesday, one apologized for an outburst after a somewhat heated but brief dispute with a collegue. Kudos to that admission. But the simmering feud cannot be totally erased.
This is all about leadership. Not just from the dais with commissioners. But from the rank-and-file employees who carry out the policies set by the commission. The directors of every essential department. Their opinion matters. They deserve respect. They deliver services to taxpayers. And up until now, they have been upbeat about working for a boss who espouses the freedom to make decisions. County Administrator Ed Hunzeker is not a top-down leader. He empowers his people.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker is not a top-down leader. He empowers his people.
But the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners, as they are officially known, cares not. At least as a majority. The 4-3 vote in December to discard Ed Hunzeker — fired, terminate, oust, the term doesn’t matter, it amounts to the same thing. Four commissioners do not want to renew his contract, set to expire in January 2018.
Even for a short time, Hunzeker should continue leading Manatee County during its first couple of years as a government with the resouces to accomplish much magic that residents have been screaming about for years. He’s willing and quite able. He led the county through massive government downsizing during the recession and kept the budget in great shape that laid the groundwork for a stronger recovery. His successful track record cannot be disputed.
To date, we have not heard a reasonable — or otherwise — explanation for dumping Hunzeker. Except the tiresome and nonsensical “it’s time for change” defense, which wouldn’t hold up in a courtroom should the “beyond a reasonable doubt” principle apply. Has Hunzeker somehow committed sins beyond amnesty? If so, let’s hear those and the public can decide on his fate.
Many community leaders are outraged, or at least asking commissioners to delay the firing for a year or two so Hunzeker can lead the county out of the proverbial woods. There are numerous projects on the agenda set out as a selling point for the half-cent sales tax referendum. The highest priorities are teed up for progress. A new administrator won’t have the necessary history to push these forward — without some deep thinking. Unless that person is now on the county payroll.
Now is not the time for this as there are a number of key items of great community importance near the goal line. We should be implementing, not pausing.
John Chappie, a former commission who left office after November’s election, wrote something that resonates with many county residents: “The decision by commission is one of leadership. Manatee County is in great shape in many areas that make our community an exceptional place to live, work and play. A great deal of credit must be given to Ed Hunzeker and the leadership team that he has established over the years.”
One of the county’s leading businessman and community leader, Rex Jensen, the president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc, wrote an email to commissioners beseeching them for reconsideration of this misguided decision, stating: “I think that this is an extremely poor time for a change in leadership. ... Now is not the time for this as there are a number of key items of great community importance near the goal line. We should be implementing, not pausing.”
On Tuesday, the national search for a new county administrator officially began. Too bad.
These are the commissioners who sacked Hunzeker on Jan. 29: Vanessa Baugh, Robin DiSabatino, Steve Jonsson and Charles Smith. Those voting to retain him: Commission Chair Betsy Benac, Priscilla Whisenant Trace and Carol Whitmore.
That January date popped up on the commission agenda suddenly, and the public hardly had time to object.
Tuesday, Whitmore made a motion to rescind the dismissal of Hunzeker, DiSabatino interrupted her and objected, and Smith laughed. Whitmore withdrew her motion. DiSabatino later said, “Sorry for my outbreak earlier.” Baugh followed up, “Not that strange.” Then, after Benac and DiSabatino mixed it up a bit, the chair said, “That ends that fun discussion.”
It was anything but fun, as Benac mocked. It was embarrassing, the point she was surely making.
In this case, the majority of commissioners appeared to be disregarding those public comments in defense of Hunzeker in favor of small-thinking politics. Manatee County is the worse off for that.