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Thursday November 20th 2014

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Oliver Fires Back

County Administrator speaks out on his successes, failures and firing

Following the Escambia County Commission’s termination vote, Randy Oliver stood from his chair and left the chambers. His days as county administrator were over.

“I’d like to thank the board and thank the citizens of Escambia County for the opportunity to serve them,” Oliver said before exiting.

The Escambia County Commissioner chairman Wilson Robertson, vice chairman Gene Valentino and outgoing Commissioner Kevin White had voted to terminate his employment with one year remaining on his three-year contract.

When Randy Oliver came to visit the Independent News on Friday, Nov. 2, which was his last official day on the job, the bespectacled, red-head with a touch of grey on his temples was still somewhat at a loss as to why he was canned.

“The sad part about this is you’re kind of like a baseball manager,” Oliver said. “The only difference is the winning percentage doesn’t matter.”

He has a point. Escambia County has a history of running off its county administrators about every two years. In the 14 years since this paper was first published, the county has had seven county administrators.  Commissioners Grover Robinson, Marie Young, Valentino and White have had four since 2007—George Touart, Bob McLaughlin, Larry Newsom (interim) and Oliver.

New Management Style
Oliver was hired in September 2010. His engineering and accounting backgrounds were a good fit for a county that was recovering from the BP oil disaster, real estate market collapse and shrinking revenues.  He was a professional administrator, not a fishing, hunting or golfing buddy of the developers and county vendors.

Oliver had served as the city manager of Greenville, S.C., Peoria, Ill. and Surprise, Ariz. He had helped with the consolidation of the City of Augusta and Richmond County, Ga.

Many thought interim administrator Larry Newsom would have been chosen, but Oliver offered a fresh approach, an outside perspective. Newsom’s predecessor had been Bob McLaughlin, a 13-year county employee who had reorganized county government by giving nearly 40 supervisors and department heads severance packages and had gotten caught up Commissioner Valentino’s efforts to take economic development away from the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Before McLaughlin, there was George Touart whom many considered the sixth commissioner for his tight-fisted hold on the county government. Under him, the county’s budget nearly doubled. There were constant rumors of inside deals, although grand juries and the ethics commission always cleared him.

Oliver knew that he had to create a new culture with county government when he arrived.  He felt that the county had good personnel but that they had not been encouraged to speak freely.

“I’m a firm believer in that you sit down and discuss ideas, because anybody’s idea can be made better by having more people involved, “ Oliver said. “Don’t tell what I want to hear, tell me what I need to know.”

Staff needed to learn that they were going to be fired for bringing issues and different opinions.

“My style was to solicit input and make it the best possible outcome that we could think of, based on the talent,” he said. “They came to a point that there was a freedom to think.”

Oliver firmly believed that a good organization couldn’t have all decisions made at the top when you have 1,100 people.

“When I can here I signed every form of everybody whom the county hired or if somebody quit,” he explained. “I was signing paper about something I didn’t know anything about. A lot of what I was forced to do over the first two years was to improve and create systems that had good checks and balances.  Because it was absolutely useless to have somebody sign a form that six other people had already signed and didn’t even know if it was right or not.”

Under Oliver, the county moved to all electronic payroll and banking. Vendor payments will be done electronically by the end of the year.

He said, “What we’ve tried to do is take a lot of the paper out of this and it has taken a period of time to do this.”

Oliver also had a system to monitor the progress of his staff.

“I had a hot sheet for all the department heads that we passed out every Monday morning,” he said. “Essentially it had all the open items, who was responsible, when it started, when it would be done and it tracked it the whole way through so that we kept those issues moving forward and didn’t get dropped.”

He added, “A collaborative environment is what works in business and it needs to work in government, but people in government are too scared to do that.”

Commissioners And Staff
One issue that had caused problems in the past had been county commissioners circumventing the county administrator and going directly to staff with issues and directives.

Oliver had no problem with commissioners speaking with department heads.

“It’s not realistic for the county commissioners to solely deal with the county administrator on issues,” he said. “It won’t work, don’t have that kind of time. What I tell them is I don’t have any problem with them going to a department head. I expect my department heads to interface with county commissioners. I expect them to provide answers, help with solutions that they think are reasonable and prudent.”

However, he didn’t like commissioners going below that level because it could create confusion.

“For a county commissioner to go out and ask a guy working on a road project when is it going to be done, I tell them I’m not going to guarantee them that answer is going to be right,” he said. “If the department director tells them, then I’m going to stand behind it because that’s their job. “

When the commissioners go below department heads, then it can put the employees in a bad situation.

“I don’t have problem with them saying, “Hi, how are you?” but when they get to the point of asking for specific information and you do this for me–that is problematic because it puts an employee in a really bad situation because they want to please, they really do,” Oliver said.

Initially the commissioners asked him to call constituents that had contacted them about minor operational issues like overgrown weeds. He let his staff handle those problems.

“They didn’t pay me to do that, “ he said. “I had great administrative support to handle that. They are going to be releasing shortly 494 CARE, which will take care of all joint service requests and keep everything in a single database. It will tell you who is calling you repeatedly about the same thing. For example, the person who started building a swimming pool in the backyard and never finished it, they call and say they have a drainage problem. You will have all that in common database so that you will know what the history was.”

Hard Calls
During Oliver’s two-year tenure, county revenues continued to shrink. He cut the budgets of his direct departments by $3.86 million and restructured the county’s bond issues for a $14 millions savings.

“You’ve got to able to make the tough decisions and calls in order to balance that budget,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces as it relates to the budget. They need to continue to make sure that revenues match expenses.”

Oliver refunded nearly $100 million in bonds and completely eliminated the bonds on the Pensacola Civic Center that were absorbing a significant portion of the county’s bed tax.

“Because the county is viewed as a very solid credit, we were able to refinance at some pretty spectacular rates,” Oliver said. “We took some that were at 5.5 percent and get them down to three. We were able to use the savings to eliminate all the debt on the civic center.”

Oliver also restructured the management contract for the civic center.  SMG’s contract had the company being paid a percentage of the gross revenue regardless of expenses.

“We restructured that contract and the subsidy to the civic center dropped by half million dollars in the first year alone,” he said.

The future of the facility, which was recently renamed “Pensacola Bay Center,” is a policy decision for the commissioners.

“In my opinion, I think the best picture that you’re going to see with the civic center is a loss of about a million dollars a year,” Oliver said. “The question from a policy standpoint is what is the value of a civic center to a community. Because with a community of this size, if you don’t have places for commencement, large events like that, the quality of life in the community suffers. The policymakers have to decide is that worth that million dollars.”

Oliver didn’t agree with closing the facility and building a new center on the campus of University of West Florida.

“Moving it out to UWF doesn’t make sense, because you’re going to hollow out the downtown,” he said. “It will essentially become a multi-sport facility for the university. Anything else that comes into there will be what I call ‘gingerbread.’”

Knowing Roles
When Oliver came onboard, the Pensacola chamber was also going through reorganization.  Jim Hizer was hired the prior month as its new president and CEO.  In January 2011, the chamber launched its Vision 2015 initiative to bring 3,000 new jobs to the area in four years. Economic development became much of the focus of the county, City of Pensacola and the chamber.

With so many entities sharing responsibility for economic development, there has been some confusion over roles. The chamber, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward and Commissioner Valentino have made trips in the past year to visit aerospace conferences in hopes of landing vendors tied to the huge Airbus facility being built in Mobile, Ala.  Valentino, who was recently given, by his fellow commissioners, the lead on their economic development efforts, would still like to see an independent economic development tied to the county commission.

“One of the things that still needs to done is everybody pull together and recognize their roles,” Oliver said. “There are a lot of different structures that work as long as everybody recognizes their role and executes their roles to make things come to make a success.”

He laughs and said slowly to provide added emphasis, “The key is you can’t have everybody wanting to be the pitcher on the baseball team.”

Oliver said he had worked with both the chamber in charge of economic development and with independent authorities.

“I’ve worked under both structures, and they both work as long as everybody understands where their roles are,” he said. “It needs to be a matter of taking leads and everybody falling in line and supporting it, not falling over themselves to get credit for it.”

When communities don’t do this, it can be detrimental to attracting businesses, according to Oliver. When a company has reduced its options to the final couple of places, the financial incentives are nearly the same. The decision is based on where the business will be the most accepted and comfortable.

Oliver explained, “If they are a foreign firm, for example, do they feel they will be well received in the community? Can they rely on, whether it’s the city or county government, to deliver the commitments that they’ve made? Things like permitting, not just the incentives. Can they count on those assurances so that they will invest in this community?”

He believed that the county is a pretty easy place in which to do business. ”You’ve got to remember the answer to economic development is not throwing money at things,” Oliver said. “There’s more to the equation. The key to figure what your industry sectors and focuses are and go after those, because you can create some synergies.”

He does believe that the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is an underutilized asset. He would like to see a high-tech incubator in the Technology Park on Ninth Avenue so that it could be heavily integrated with IHMC, a model that he has seen work in other communities.

“Manufacturing jobs are good, but we need to raise the quality of jobs in the community,” Oliver said. “Tourism talks about all its jobs. Well fine, but they won’t support a family. “

According to Oliver, people who invent things aren’t typically very good at commercializing.

“They like to invent something and then go on and invent something new so they need somebody who will take on to commercialization,” he said. “The people who do the commercialization have a whole different set of talents. It’s like the difference in being a city manager in town with a 100 employees who can know where everybody is at the same time and when you get up to 1,100 or 2,000 you’ve got to have a structure in place so you know how it works.”

He added, “IHMC is tremendous asset and we need to start building on that synergy.”

Losing Third Vote
With Oliver’s accomplishments with the budget, refinancing the bonds and raising the professionalism of county government, it might seem that he would have no problem completing his three-year employment contract. However, there was always a cloud over the former county administrator.

He was chosen with by a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Wilson Robertson and Gene Valentino opposing his selection.

Robertson often told the Independent News, “I don’t know why a man would take a job knowing that two commissioners voted against him.”

From much of Oliver’s first two years in the job, the three-vote coalition held. Commissioners Marie Young, Kevin White and Grover Robinson appeared to like him and tended to vote together on most issues. Robertson and Valentino were in the minority.

Robinson and Robertson often butted heads. Especially when it came to hiring Forrest Gibbs to head the county’s equestrian center. White appeared to take delight in taunting Valentino. He appointed Valentino’s 2010 opponent, Karen Sindel, to the Escambia County Planning Board. Young was often the mediator on the board.

Then in late summer, that Young-White-Robinson coalition fell apart. Commissioner White stopped coming into the office and talking with Oliver. White had decided not to run for a third term and had applied for a supervisor position with county code enforcement, which he did not get. It was White who pushed for evaluation of Oliver’s contract before a newly elected commission took office.

“Kevin White just stopped coming in,” said Oliver. “I tried to talk to him and meet with him. He wouldn’t, but I did regularly meet with Gene Valentino and Commissioner Robertson.”

Points of Contention
Both Robertson and Valentino had issues with the county administrator.

In fall of 2010, the Pensacola News Journal reported that Forrest Gibbs, a friend and supporter of Commissioner Robertson, had been hired as the marketing director for Escambia County Equestrian Center and given a higher salary than advertised for the job due to pressure from Robertson. Oliver later fired Gibbs and the county commission, including Robertson, called for a state investigation into the process. The State Attorney found no wrongdoing.

Randy Oliver was the first person to report the issue to the State Attorney’s office, weeks before the newspaper report.

“Before they discussed it at the board, I felt I had a responsibility to go the authorities, because of my being the county administrator and my background as an accountant. If there was something questionable, or I believed may be inappropriate, I had the responsibility to go to whomever,” he said. “I had given certain information to the state attorney about it four weeks before. And the state attorney told me that there’s nothing here so they didn’t do anything with it.  And that was before anything came up.”

He added, “I did that because I thought that was my ethical responsibility.”

Dealing with Commissioner Valentino was more problematic. In 2009, County Administrator Bob McLaughlin had run afoul with some of the commissioners and the business community. He got too involved in pushing Valentino’s economic development authority.

“I tried to explain to elected officials,” said Oliver. “They work for their constituents which is very true. Once they get elected their goal is to have three votes among the commission to get anything done.”

However, Oliver didn’t believe it was his job to sell one commissioner’s ideas to the others.

“I just frame the issues for them,” he said. “It’s not my job to sell an issue to the five of them. It’s my job to provide the options, the alternatives and the best professional recommendation, then they make a decision. As long as it’s a legal decision then it’s my job to implement that decision.”

The big breaking point for Valentino concerned a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that Commissioner Kevin White, who was chairman at the time, and Oliver wrote.

In his written evaluation of the county administrator, Valentino had chastised Oliver for being “unethical and insubordinate” in how he handled the DEP incident.

In late March 2011, tar balls washed up on beaches on Perdido Key. Emails were exchanged between residents, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the county about why the BP clean up crews weren’t working during the daytime. In one email, Commissioner Valentino described the efforts of the state, BP and federal government as “criminally negligent.”

This email made its way to Mimi Drew, special advisor to the DEP secretary, and she was not amused. She wrote a letter to Oliver in which she said that her staff had been “as responsive as humanly possible to the continuing issues you are facing.” Drew went on to describe how she had personally arranged a teleconference for Commissioner Valentino with the DEP lab team to help understand DEP testing and how to interpret the results.

Oliver and Commissioner responded with a letter in which they assured Drew that Valentino’s email did not reflect the position of the Commission or County Administration. They wrote, “While we do not condone what was said, Commissioner Valentino’s District was impacted greatly by the Oil Spill. Consequently, he is passionate about the issue.”

White and Oliver told Drew that the county had a good relationship with DEP. “We look forward to continued agency and staff goodwill, cooperation and support.”

“I know he had a bit of an issue with the DEP letter, but as a practical matter we wouldn’t have gotten any NRDA money from the state,” Oliver told the IN. “To call a state agency or somebody in a state agency criminally negligent, in my opinion, has a distinct connotation which I feel very much that you’ve got to be able to prove. If you believe it’s criminally negligent then you should go to the proper legal authorities and ask them to investigate it.”

He added, “If someone wanted to say they handled it poorly or they were negligent, that’s different but when you say criminally negligent, to me, that’s problematic.”

When asked about the two other commissioners, Marie Young and Grover Robinson, Oliver had nothing but praise.

“Marie is a great stabilizing force on the commission and is very methodical in the way she views things,” he said. “I have the highest regard for Marie. She is probably one of the most forthright people that I’ve worked with in my career.  I just have the upmost respect for her.”

He praised Commissioner Robinson’s personal skills. He said, “Grover has this uncanny ability to work with other people from other counties and people of other political persuasions and weave together coalitions that you sometimes think aren’t possible.”

Uncertain Future
As far his future, Oliver said he would like to stay in the area. “I really like this community,” he said. “Of all the communities I’ve been in, I really like the community. For its size, the community offers a great blend of cultural opportunities and amenities that you don’t see in communities that are substantially larger than this without all the hassle and aggravation as the cities get bigger.”

He is keeping his options open. “I’m candidly sizing up a couple opportunities here,” he said. “I’m toying with doing some consulting work, but the issue with that is you’re on the road.  I’ve got my hat in the ring in a couple other places. As I say, I’m going to have to think long and hard.”

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Touart’s Return

For weeks, members of the Escambia County Commission casually brushed aside speculation that former county administrator George Touart would be brought back to the helm following the firing of most-recent county administrator Randy Oliver. They continued to do so right up until they approved him as interim county administrator by a 3-2 vote.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media and the community lately,” noted Commissioner Gene Valentino just before nominating Touart for the interim position. “It’s hard to react to some of the scrutiny in the press when I can’t, or choose not to—I know what the media doesn’t know.”

Valentino’s motion to hand the interim position to Touart silenced the chambers. Eventually, outgoing Commissioner Kevin White seconded, though he too was interested in the position—“seriously, I brought my resume.”

Valentino indicated that Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson’s first choice—Assistant (Acting) County Administrator Larry Newsom—didn’t want the top slot, that it would be “just a little too much.” That was a surprise to Commissioner Grover Robinson.

“When I communicated with Larry,” said Robinson, “he commented he would be more than happy to take the responsibilities until we can get somebody.”

“Larry, can I ask you a few questions?” Valentino turned to Newsom.

The assistant administrator clarified that he had indicated to Robinson that he could continue in the position—“the answer was clearly yes”—but that he would serve at the pleasure of the board.

Commissioner White initially voiced concerns about naming an interim when the board was poised to seat two new members, but then warmed to the notion—“it is an interesting idea, George”—as did the chairman. Robinson and Commissioner Marie Young objected.

Before bringing back Touart—at a $130,000 salary, plus benefits—Valentino, who becomes chairman this month, stressed that he wanted to take as much time as needed to find a permanent replacement.

“Frankly, I don’t have a clue if we can get the candidate we want in six months,” he said. “But I don’t want to be rushed. I want to get it right.”