Gene Valentino brews a decent espresso. He serves it up classy, in a cup on a saucer, for guests to sip as they listen to his grand plans for Escambia County.
“We’ve got to be less myopic on how we look at our future,” Valentino said, taking a seat in his downtown office.
This month, Valentino becomes chairman of the Escambia County Commission. He has a determined vision. There is no want for direction and little patience for distractions.
“Without being arrogant or boastful, I’m just tired—after six years on the job I want to win,” the current vice-chairman said. “I want people to trust me. Yeah, I’m a politician, but I want people to trust me.”
Valentino will be chairing a body that recently released the county administrator on a 3-2 vote, is seeing two new members seated, and will most likely be determining how best to spend the county’s RESTORE Act windfall. The commission, and Valentino specifically, have also drawn fire from the media and the public when former county administrator George Touart was brought back aboard in an interim capacity.
Leading up to his chairmanship, Valentino sat down for “some mature conversation.” On a bookshelf behind him was a statue of Buddha alongside a grip-and-grin trophy photo of the commissioner winning a stock car race. Across the room, a framed shot of Marlon Brando featuring a line from “The Godfather”: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Everyone ought to just cool their jets and take a deep breathe,” Valentino began the conversation. “The world’s not coming to an end.”
Swapping New For Old
After a rocky budget season, and a year shy of his three-year contract, the Escambia County Commission fired former administrator Randy Oliver in October. Valentino led the charge and bristles at criticism of the move.
“There is much you don’t know about why I chose to fire Randy Oliver,” he said. “I chose not embarrassing him.”
The commissioner said that his relationship with the county administrator was “intimate, in a professional sense.” That relationship had soured with Oliver. Later, Valentino elaborated.
“The huge issue for me was insubordination,” he said.
Specifically, Valentino is referring to an episode in 2011 when Oliver and then-chairman Kevin White downplayed the commissioner’s complaints to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection regarding tar balls washing up on local beaches. It’s a sore spot, which he cited in his evaluation of the administrator.
“That impuned my character and credibility. He had no right to do that, so it’s personal,” Valentino said. “I don’t expect the citizens to understand that, but I will not be subordinated by the person who works for me in the eyes of state officials.”
With Oliver out, the commissioner successfully brought back Touart. The former administrator resigned in 2007 following media reports on possible conflicts between his side businesses and the county. Shortly thereafter Valentino cooperated with state investigators in a sting operation against him that went nowhere. Touart also ran against Valentino for the District 2 commission seat in 2010.
“I haven’t lost my mind,” Valentino assured. “I’m doing the man thing, the honorable thing, the Christian thing.”
Expectations for Touart
There has been speculation that Touart was brought back so that he could incur the time necessary to qualify for Florida Retirement System benefits—“that had nothing to do with it, I’m glad I could help him”—or that he was being installed to better steer RESTORE Act dollars.
“There’s no hidden agenda,” Valentino said. “There’s nothing up my sleeve with George Touart.”
The commissioner dismissed speculation concerning Touart for weeks leading up to the decision to bring the former administrator back. Now he finds himself playing defense, explaining that he’s operating “at the 10,000-foot level” and stressing to people that no one was ever nailed him on ethics violations or convicted him for any crimes.
“I said this to someone the other night,” Valentino relayed, “‘I know you’re frustrated with my decision. Show me one thing that’s illegal and I’ll walk straight to the state attorney’s office.’”
The incoming chairman described Touart as “not a long-term fix” and “on a short-leash, anyway.”
“George’s role is to work aggressively at replacing himself,” Valentino said.
But he has also let his fellow commissioners know that he was in no mood to be rushed in searching for a permanent replacement. Other commissioners expressed concerns about waiting beyond the spring budget season to hire a new administrator.
“That’s one of the reasons I like George—he knows the budget process of Escambia County,” Valentino said in his office. “I was hoping George would be able to stay with us throughout the budget.”
When considering the long-term prospects for the county administrator position, Valentino said he plans to be more involved in the search efforts. He doesn’t think Oliver was vetted properly—“he had no speeding tickets is what I was told”—and feels the county’s background check should be more focused on a candidate’s working relationships.
“When we do a search this time,” Valentino said, “I’m gonna stick my nose in and check.”
The commissioner said he wants to find an administrator who is “collaborative” and works well with the individual commissioners—“he should be able to earn my respect”—in addition to being able to “mend the fences in these areas that are less obvious to media and the public.” Valentino also noted that an administrator shouldn’t pursue their own agenda.
“County administrators lose their job when they start acting like county commissioners instead of county administration,” he said.
When the federal government and BP reach an agreement over Clean Water Act fines related to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the RESTORE Act has ensured that Escambia County—and other Gulf Coast communities—will be getting a lot of money. Locally, it could mean around $200 million.
“Single largest financial Tsunami to hit Escambia County, ever,” said Valentino.
The county commission has already begun prep work for the funds. It plans to assemble an advisory board to evaluate projects and to serve as “filters and buffers for sharks that are already swarming.”
“The RESTORE Act never required the county commission to establish an advisory board, but we did at my request,” Valentino said, explaining that the commission wanted to stay pure, be protected from lobbying. “I refuse to put any of the five commissioners, including myself, in that kind of peril.”
The advisory board will be comprised of “subject experts with no ax to grind.” The commission plans to charge the board with assessing and ranking possible projects worthy of the RESTORE money.
“The best use of the money would be economic development incentives and infrastructure, with a smaller portion going to environment,” Valentino said, noting that federal and state portions of the RESTORE money is allocated for environmental restoration.
The commissioner said the county should consider spending the money on water, sewer and drainage issues, as well as road improvements and beach renourishment. He also wants to purchase land that he says is needed to lure foreign companies to the area, and thinks the county needs to invest in “a modern, high-tech industrial park” for the same reason.
The advisory board will be selected and begin its work soon. As he has during public forums, the incoming chairman clarified that the body could be scrapped at any point.
“Remember, I can get rid of that advisory board as quick as it was created,” Valentino said.
Giddy in the Wheelhouse
Recently, Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson named his successor as the county’s representative when it came to economic development efforts. The commission had already sent him to Germany to talk up Airbus subcontractors, and it was apparent he had interest in the area.
“That’s what I do love,” Valentino said.
On a coffee table in his office is Escambia County’s new promo packet. There’s also a brochure for the First Florida Super Site, an 850-acre site advertised as being 50 miles from the Airbus Aeroplex and able “to accommodate your development and industrial needs.”
“I used it on my trip to Europe,” Valentino said of the material. “This is what we use to sell Escambia County to the rest of the world.”
The vice-chairman was recently successful in securing $250,000 of county funds to use for “incidental expenses” when foreign business delegations visit the area. He invited them here to “kick the tires,” in hopes that they’ll decide to relocate operations and bring the all-coveted jobs to the area.
“I do think we’ll be successful, I’ve put my heart into it,” Valentino said.
Insofar as coordinating economic development efforts by the county, Greater Pensacola Chamber and the city of Pensacola, the commissioner said he’s prepared to “work hand-in-glove with any entity that the county commission endorses.” He said that whatever body handles the efforts, it “must have the ability to negotiate a deal from stem to stern.”
“The entity I proposed three years ago would be able to do it,” Valentino said, describing a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit he’s dubbed the Economic Development Authority.
He believes local governments in the region must work in concert, not competition, when it comes to bringing jobs to Northwest Florida.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,’” Valentino said. “I don’t care if Santa Rosa gets some, Okaloosa too, that’s good for all of us. We have to think regionally now.”
Symphony of Synchronicity
Valentino is stepping into the chairmanship because it’s his turn. The vice-chairman of the commission automatically rotates to the helm. It’s not a process the incoming chairman appreciates.
“I was against rotation of the chairman,” Valentino said. “I believe the chairman should be picked by his peers.”
He pointed out that the recently elected District 3 commissioner—“no disrespect intended to Lumon, as a person”—wouldn’t have as much experience as other commissioners farther back in rotation. He feels the chairman should have “been around the tracks a few times.”
On that note, Valentino plans to take the new commissioners—Lumon May and Steven Barry—under his wing. He’ll explain process and procedure—“I’ll prompt them, I’ll cue them”—and introduce them to the rituals of the body.
“Grab the rookies, the new people on the board,” he said, “and make sure they’re not run roughshod over.”
Valentino has already given Escambia County a peek into his chairmanship. He recently hammered out a deal with the city of Pensacola to work toward a library system fully funded by a Municipal Service Tax Unit. Next, he calmly stifled his enthusiasm as outgoing Commissioner Marie Young threw on the table a gas-tax he has long advocated to fund mass transit.
These initial ripples as the commission nears a Valentino-chairmanship are ultimately aimed at the new leader’s passion: economic development and jobs. They are pieces of a puzzle he hopes to sell to the outside world.
“In the eyes of the businesses looking to bring jobs to town, we look smart doing it this way,” Valentino said, adding that European scouts focus on such aspects of a community. “Mass transit, art museums on every corner, libraries—they’re really into that stuff.”
In his long-view vision, everything plays into each other. It’s all connected—“any one issue that’s going on right now, it doesn’t sit alone”—the libraries, an industrial park, a gas tax, RESTORE money, everything.
“What does a library system have to do with Airbus subcontractors? At first blush, nothing,” Valentino said, before laying out the puzzle. “There’s a symphony, there’s a synchronicity about how one of these issues affects the others.”