‘Dysfunctional’ Manatee County Commission mulls looming county administrator search

With a new revenue source and the looming decision of finding a new county administrator, the Manatee County Commission met Thursday in an all-day strategic planning session intended to map out the future.

But while the commissioners set out goals that include prioritizing sales tax spending and improving the transportation strategy, the decision to not renew County Administrator Ed Hunzeker’s contract was revisited, prompting much tension between the commissioners.

“You have a much bigger issue than anything that we put on this chart,” said facilitator Barry Banther, who at times stepped aside from facilitating the retreat. “There is still a lot of anger toward Ed, our current administrator, in this room. You need to get that out. You need to vent it. Any very capable administrator will pick up disunity and won’t take the job.”

It took the two new commissioners — Steve Jonsson and Priscilla Whisenant Trace — to say, “Hey, you are dysfunctional,” Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said.

“In order for us to move forward, we’ve got to be united, and we can’t be so fractured as we have been in the past,” DiSabatino said.

After listing traits the commissioners would like to see in the next county administrator, Trace brought up what she called “the elephant in the room” — the fact that the item for a national search for the county administrator was on the agenda for Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s last meeting as chairwoman.

“I found that kind of weird that your last meeting as a chair you put that on the agenda,” Trace said. “That was my very first regular meeting.”

Noting that the qualities listed sound like Hunzeker, Trace, who was sworn in last November, asked what Hunzeker did wrong.

“I am having difficult understanding the animosity,” Trace said. “The animosity that comes up every time this comes up has got to quit. I don’t understand it. It is personal. This is personal and a personality, and y’all don’t think he has the skills.”

In December, the commission narrowly approved in a 4-3 vote to proceed with a national search to find Hunzeker’s successor, rather than extend his contract, which currently expires Jan. 29, 2018. The commissioners voting in favor of a national search were Baugh, DiSabatino, Jonsson and Charles Smith. Voting against a search were commissioners Trace, Betsy Benac and Carol Whitmore.

“We are sitting here making a spectacle of ourselves over a decision that has been made. A decision that has been voted on,” Baugh said Thursday.

During the retreat, which was at the Manatee County Public Safety Center, Hunzeker said he never asked anyone if he could stay on as county administrator.

“I am fine with retiring,” he said. “I was always prepared to retire. I am good with retiring. I want a smooth transition. I will work with you to make a smooth transition. You have a hard decision to make. We are here to help. I am not standing in the way of this.”

Forced to do a transition to a new county administrator, Benac, who is commission chairwoman, said they have to look at how to best do that.

“I don’t think we can do that if we can’t have a good conversation about it,” she said. “We have created a great deal of uncertainty in this community.”

With experience in conducting similar searches, Rodney Barnes, the county’s human resources director, detailed some processes the commission could choose. The commissioners gave Barnes the OK to begin preparing a request for proposals for an executive search firm to assist.

“We, as directors, work in the interest of this, and I would conduct a search with the interest of that in mind,” Barnes said. “I stand ready to provide that assistance in whatever way the commissioners want.”

Most department directors, as well as county officials including Hunzeker and County Attorney Mickey Palmer, attended Thursday’s retreat.

Elliott Falcione, executive director at Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, detailed what department heads want in an administrator: someone with a positive attitude every day, someone who empowers employees while holding them accountable and a leader who will hire directors willing to take risks.

“We want to come to work because you have a leader with consistent positive attitude in good times, and bad times you get things done,” he said.

This is a whole team, said Cheri Coryea, the county’s neighborhood services director.

“It’s a ‘we’ attitude,” she said. “This team is strong. We are here to work hard together.”

Over the coming weeks, the department directors will meet with each commissioner individually to “talk about the positive transition,” said Ron Schulhofer, the county’s public works director.

“We want to be able to have that candid conversation,” he said.

The commission has to try to focus on moving forward, Benac said.

“We have a job to do to move this community forward,” she said. “We aren’t going to make it political. We aren’t going to have it be a group of four against three.”

While the challenge in finding the next administrator is “huge,” Benac said she thinks they can all say that they’ve had successful leadership.

“I think this board is up for it,” she said. “I think this community is up for it but it’s not going to be easy. We have to remain civil. We have to remain positive.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson