By Caitlyn Finnegan
In what stood as the last test before the Alachua County Commission’s final decision on Tuesday, the remaining candidates for the county manager position were interviewed one last time after spending two days racing through individual interviews, meet-and-greets and meetings with community organizations.
As the five candidates rotated through their panel interviews with the commission on Friday, many of the responses echoed one another, but small differences made clear that each candidate would provide a different style of leadership to the administrative position.
One of the first things the commissioners wanted to know was how each candidate would address the issue of raising morale among the different county departments, as well as how they would work with the budget to give county employees a raise – a benefit they haven’t received in six years.
Stockton Whitten, the deputy county manager of Brevard County, said not giving employees a raise in six years is a “significant issue,” and one that could not go unaddressed any longer. To help raise morale among employees, he said he would implement employee satisfaction surveys so employees can give more specificity on what their issues are, leading to more accountability for their managers and directors to address such issues.
“I would also create an employee innovations program where employees themselves can identify savings in the processes they do every day,” Whitten said. “Then we would share a percentage of those savings with the employees.”
Candidates also face coming into a new environment, making commissioners attentive to how each will interact with current county employees and organizations once they move into the position.
James Bourey, who has more than 35 years of local government experience, said the key to establishing credibility it getting to know people immediately by going out into the community.
“You have to be a sponge; so I would be a sponge for many weeks and months,” Bourey said.
“The key to that is being a good listener. A successful manager is going to have to be active in the community, I think that all affects how people perceive and interact with you.”
David Jones, the county administrator for Polk County, Iowa, said he had already established respect for the community based on the dedication to improvement he had seen while meeting with county residents and organizations including the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“One of the things that really attracts me to Alachua County is the amount of civic engagement and involvement in the community,” Jones said. “I’m not frightened by that, and I think its an important thing that separates your community from other communities I’ve visited.”
Commissioners were also concerned with how each of the candidates would address rising budget issues in the county paired with an increasing demand from residents to provide county services.
While working as an assistant county administrator in Hillsborough County, candidate Kenneth Griffin said his staff experienced a 35 percent decline in revenue, helping him to become well-versed in creative budgeting.
“It’s what we lived and breathed 24 hours a day because it was a monster challenge,” Griffin said. “We have to get very creative in how we (rethink the budget) and organize lines to combine departments and work with neighboring communities to deliver more services to the community.”
Establishing candidates’ views on balancing economic development with environmental concerns was also a key topic.
Charles “Randy” Oliver, said the county could benefit by choosing its target markets more carefully and adopting a more consistent approach in providing incentives for companies.
“People will chase any kind of economic opportunity out there, but that is not the best approach,” Oliver said. “You need a targeted approach so you can get industries that compliment each other and build on each other.”
Oliver said the county should identify the top three to five target markets in the community and let those become the target markets to strive towards. He also cautioned against over-using incentives.
“You can put tools in your toolbox, but use them prudently,” Oliver said.
Once the interviews finished, commissioners also waded through preliminary negotiations regarding the base salary, retirement package and other initiatives that would be offered to the chosen candidate.
After debating over whether to offer candidates a universal benefits package no matter their background versus comparing what they could offer their top choice based on his previous benefit package, the commission agreed to put the item first on the agenda for its Tuesday meeting.
County commissioners will announce their top candidate during Tuesday’s meeting. Public comment will be allowed before they vote.