High-ranking Manatee County employee cleared to become acting county administrator

The Manatee Board of County Commissioners is preparing to make the changes necessary to appoint the ideal candidate to a position as the acting county administrator.

At a December meeting, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker announced that he would step down from his position in the spring to spend more time with his family. On Jan. 10, he informed commissioners that his last day would be March 1.

The logical choice to fill in for him, board members agreed, was sitting right in front of them. Each commissioner vouched for Deputy County Administrator Cheri Coryea, who has shown them that she has what it takes to lead the county.

But there’s a snag in the Manatee County’s hiring guidelines, according to County Attorney Mitchell Palmer: Coryea doesn’t have a college degree.

The college question

She told commissioners during a special meeting held Tuesday morning that life got in the way of obtaining her degree after three and a half years at Indiana University.

“I had a health issue with my father, stayed home and I’ve been working ever since,” the deputy administrator explained. “I do understand you have a very big role to play in this decision and it’s unfortunate that you have to debate this.”

Coryea found sympathy in Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who had a similar experience, but other commissioners were unwilling to bend the rules to appoint the 58-year-old to the position of acting administrator without the legally required qualifications.

Cheri Coryea, a current deputy county administrator, addresses the Board of County Commissioner’s concerns about her lack of a college degree. Commissioners agreed that she would be a suitable interim county administrator, but struggled with the fact that she does not have a bachelor’s degree, a requirement of Manatee County’s own making. Ryan Callihan rcallihan@bradenton.com

Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Misty Servia and Stephen Jonsson had no doubt that Coryea would be a terrific fit, but they were uneasy with allowing Coryea to fill the position without a college degree.

“I’m going to tell you I’m uncomfortable modifying our ordinance to remove the requirement for a college graduate. I think that’s a very important requirement and that’s not a reflection at all on Cheri. Cheri is an outstanding leader. I’m more impressed with Cheri having toured her old department recently,” said Servia. “She’s a great, great employee, but I’m not comfortable modifying that standard.”

Coryea served as the department director of Neighborhood Services and Community Services for 10 years. She oversaw the consolidation of those two departments before being named interim deputy county administrator and officially appointed to the position in 2017.

During her time with the county, Coryea has played a critical role in projects, such as the children’s services tax, the formation of the Southwest Tax Increment Financing District and the Manatee Millennial Movement. She has earned recognition from the NAACP, the Tampa Bay Business Journal and the American Association of University Women.

Early in the discussion, Baugh nominated Jan Brewer, director of financial management, to become acting county administrator, partly because she knew Coryea didn’t have the required credentials.

“I hated finding out that Cheri doesn’t qualify under that. I can’t help it. It is what it is. Cheri and I had a long conversation on that,” Baugh said. “I’m just not willing to change it.”

‘Known talent’

The other four commissioners, however, weren’t keen on keeping the position out of reach for Coryea, who has nearly 30 years of experience in a managerial position with Manatee County government. That experience should serve as an adequate substitute, especially for an interim position, they argued.

“I struggle to turn my back on known talent. It’s known that Cheri has the talent to do the job and get things done,” said Commissioner Reggie Bellamy. “There’s some people out there that will walk circles around people with college degrees. We don’t turn our back on known talent. We embrace them and see what’s next.”

It would be an easy fix for commissioners to amend the ordinance that mandates a bachelor’s degree for county administrators, County Attorney Mitchell Palmer said. The Florida State Statute for county administrators doesn’t require a certain level of education at all, he explained.

Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said she wouldn’t be happy about changing the rule, but that a college education isn’t the be-all and end-all.

“My son didn’t go to college and he’s running our business better than I ever did, and to be honest, what I learned in the ‘70s, nobody’s doing anymore,” she said. “The experience you gain as a person is also worth consideration.”

An easy fix

If board members are dead set on Coryea, Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague advised the board that it would be wise to amend that ordinance to eradicate the chance of any potential litigation.

“This is not something you can take chances on. If a judge disagrees, you could have an ultra vires judgment on your hands. Even if you don’t accept the county attorney’s interpretation, a judge could disagree with you,” Clague said, warning that litigation could cost the county millions of dollars.

Manatee resident Sandy Marshall chimed in on the discussion and concurred with the county attorney’s office during public comment.

“There’s an easy way to fix anything,” he said. “The hard way is to go across the street.”

Both sides found a compromise in allowing Coryea to assume the role of acting county administrator by ordering Palmer’s office to amend the motion. Commissioners suggested a change that would remove the educational requirement for otherwise qualified county employees to take the acting position for up to one year.

The new ordinance should come before the board during a regular meeting in February, Palmer said. Commissioners expect to appoint Coryea as acting county administrator at that time.

A broad search begins

While commissioners cleared the path for Coryea to eventually be appointed in the interim, it left the question of who would take the permanent job – and what it would take to find them.

The commission conducted a search for a new administrator nearly two years ago in May 2017. Commissioners ultimately opted to keep Hunzeker on board but kept the contract with the Springsted Waters search firm.

“They weren’t innovative enough,” Whitmore said.

Escambia County is another Florida county currently looking to fill its vacant county administrator spot. Servia said it might be beneficial to reach out to them and see who they’re using and how their process is going.

“We need to cast the net wide,” said Servia.

Commissioners agreed to revisit the drawing board after receiving a “less than stellar” list of finalists for the job two years ago. The next move will be to ask the Florida Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties for search firm recommendations.

Will they fit?

Even on his way out the door, Hunzeker happily gave his two cents pertaining to which qualities the board should look for in his successor.

“I’m not leaving town. March 1 will come and go, and I’ll still be in town. I’m happy to assist you with this recruitment. I know the pitfalls and issues,” Hunzeker said. “From my perspective, a topic for you to discuss is the importance of Florida experience. If you haven’t lived elsewhere, you don’t know how unique Florida is.”

The Manatee County Commission held a workshop to discuss a replacement for the County Administrator, Ed Hunzeker, left, who is retiring in a month. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The retiring administrator also briefed the board on his hiring process for new department heads, which is structured to ensure the applicant is the right person to mesh with county staff.

“The question is ‘Will they fit?’ Will they fit with this board? Will they fit in with the Wednesday morning department director meetings?” Hunzeker said.

Under his leadership, applicants sat through a series of in-person interviews. First, they would meet with Hunzeker and his deputy administrators, then the other department heads and finally the members of the department that would report directly to them.

That kind of direct input from county staff during the hiring process is something commissioners would like to incorporate, they said.

A handful of those directors took to the podium to voice their support for Coryea.

“We need somebody who brings everyone to the table and works with them, and is good with the board, and is good with the community,” said Building and Development Services Director John Barnott. “I have always seen Cheri do that.”