Local

He’s been conducting county business for 12 years. It’s now time to hand off the baton

At every symphony, there’s a leader who doesn’t play an instrument but waves a baton to make the magic happen.

Ed Hunzeker, the man who professes to run Manatee County in a similar fashion, retired Friday after 12 years as county administrator. His tenure includes a number of success stories, but they weren’t his doing, he said.

“I’ve been in management for 30 years and my advice has always been to hire good people, let them know what direction we’re headed in and let them loose,” Hunzeker explained. “I’ve always said that if I was the one doing (utilities director) Mike Gore’s job, we’d all be in trouble.”

The county has earned numerous accolades under his leadership, many of which he recently praised in his final annual report to the Board of County Commissioners. But that was the work of 1,800 county employees who are, “doing remarkable things,” according to Hunzeker.

Some of those achievements include the construction of the Fort Hamer Bridge, the recognition of Manatee’s beach lifeguard crew as the best in Florida and a collaborative effort among county employees in response to a dreadful bout of red tide.

His crowning jewel, however, might be negotiating the purchase of 75 acres of land north of the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.

“As the county’s population center shifts east, it’s important that we provide business services out there. The campus will materialize over the coming years, but that’s thinking long-term,” Hunzeker said. “I always urge commissioners and my department heads to look 20 to 30 years down the road.”

After 51 years in public service, the 71-year-old is making his exit long before an East Campus comes to fruition.

“Sometimes you just wake up in the morning and know it’s time,” Hunzeker said of his retirement. “The budget process starts Monday and I believe that whoever starts that process should be the one to finish it, and I won’t be here in September to do that.”

Instead, he’s handing his deputy county administrator, Cheri Coryea, the keys to the castle. In has last public meeting as administrator Thursday, he sat back and watched her take over the first phase of his old job — balancing a $1.4 billion county budget.

Hunzeker has long admired Coryea’s work ethic, he said, recounting the time he asked her to head Neighborhood Services, a newly formed county department.

“She was probably surprised that I knew who she was, let alone that I wanted to make her a department head,” he said of Coryea. “She had the knowledge, skills and ability, but I wanted to know if she had the fire to excel at something that we’ve never done before. She was a natural.”

Coryea, 59, began her Manatee County career as an assistant human services analyst in 1989 and proceeded to climb the ranks. In 2017, Hunzeker promoted Coryea to deputy county administrator, where she worked closely with him, overseeing several department leaders and staff. Starting Friday, she’ll now oversee all 1,800 employees.

It’s a job that commissioners are confident she can carry out for up to one year in an acting role, but Coryea, who also has 30 years of experience in a management position within Manatee County Government, never earned a bachelor’s degree, which disqualifies her from applying for the position permanently.

Her boss, on the other hand, said he would support Coryea filling in for him indefinitely and doesn’t believe a college degree would make any difference in her ability.

“The only time a college degree is required is within five years of earning it. After that, the question isn’t where did you go but what have you done,” Hunzeker argued. “That’s especially the case 30 years down the line.”

“If Cheri’s going to go get her college degree, there’s not a single thing she’ll learn that will help her do this job any better,” he added.

Through the board’s many discussions on who to assign to Hunzeker’s post, department leaders have vouched time and time again for Coryea’s guidance.

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With Ed Hunzeker retiring, Cheri Coryea takes over as Manatee County administrator. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“She’s superhuman,” Manatee County spokesperson Nick Azzara said. “If there’s anyone who can fill shoes that big, it’s her.”

Commissioners and county staff also said Hunzeker’s leadership was something to behold. He is credited with introducing a fiscally conservative budget that holds four times more money than Florida statute mandates and steering the county through tough times during the recession. That experience was one of the most difficult in his life.

“My biggest low was laying off 300 people in 2008 and 2009. That’s the hardest thing I ever had to do in my career,” Hunzeker said.

“When you fire someone, it’s because they’ve misbehaved and they share responsibility for doing something wrong, but when you’ve got to lay off people with kids, families and car payments because the government ran out of money, it’s tough.”

As he departs, he advises board members to keep a focus on the future and, if possible, hire a county administrator who’s already familiar with how things work in Florida.

“You can only know how unique Florida is if you’re from somewhere else,” Hunzeker said. “If they’re trying to figure out that system, they’ll down all the processes that we’ve already got in place until they figure it out.

“Manatee County is the 16th largest county in the state of Florida by population. That means there are 51 other county administrators who might want to make a step up. Why not go after one of them?”

Hunzeker’s retirement doesn’t mean he’ll be disappearing from the scene entirely, though. By the end of the year, he expects to figure out a new hobby that moves the community forward.

“At some point, I’ll do something, and I’ll want to do something helpful,” he said.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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