Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday March 20th 2019

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Rebuilding City Government

By Rick Outzen

On Monday, the Mayoral Transition Team handed its report to Mayor Grover Robinson. On the eve of report’s release, Inweekly sat down with City Administrator Chris Holley to discuss what he has learned after delving into the city operations over the past three months.

Mayor Robinson has tasked Holley with helping him rebuild an organization that has had a lot of turnover the past eight years and is currently faced with several upcoming retirements in critical positions. At the same time, the city’s growth and redevelopment hasn’t slowed.

At the mayor’s press conference on Feb. 25, he talked about the city’s new organization structure. Holley said, “We’ve proposed to the mayor a structure that kind of aligns the departments that are dealing with a lot of the development issues.”

When Inweekly interviewed him three days later, he was still tinkering with the alignments of the departments. He plans to oversee finance and public safety and to hire two deputy administrators to oversee the other city functions.

“We have all these things that are happening with the redevelopment,” he said as he showed two organization charts with “draft” watermarks. “We need to align our talent and resources to be able to serve that process.”

Before the change in the city charter to strong-mayor leadership, Holley said, “The city had a manager and multiple deputies, reporting systems under that, more planners and more of everything. There were a lot of issues that the whole administration dealt with to do what they felt they needed to do. Then the organization was kind of streamlined.”

He believes the administration needs to be rebuilt. He said, “It’s not that we are trying to build a bigger bureaucracy or anything, but we certainly are looking at what the impacts of that were. And then, yes, obviously there’s a lot of retirements coming as well.”

The administrator and the two deputies are integral parts of the new organization. He said, “Personally, for me, would I like to go back into retirement at some point? Yes. So, if we don’t start looking at some point here in the next six months, then I’m here longer than maybe either the mayor wants or I want to be here.”

Holley wants to go back into retirement, and he said Assistant Administrator Keith Wilkins also intends to retire. He said, “If we don’t start bringing some talent in and training them, then that prolongs that. We don’t want to leave the city in a lurch or anything.”

The city has posted a job opening for an Assistant City Administrator-Community Development with a pay range of $110,000-$139,900.

“We felt that this was the right move—to go recruit this person now,” said Holley. “Get them up and running. It gives us more depth on this floor. And then Keith can move back over on the admin side of the organizational chart. I’ll keep public safety and finance, but we will have two deputies and see how it works.”

Another position the city is seeking to fill is a deputy finance director, who will be groomed to replace long-time CFO Dick Barker.

“I was down there a couple of weeks ago on another matter, and Dick started rattling off the list of people that were in DROP or about to retire, and I really wasn’t aware of it,” Holley said. “Dick wants three or four more years. Money management is critical, so having a seasoned veteran managing the money, to me, is a good thing for Grover and myself right now.”

The decision was made to create the deputy finance director and start recruiting somebody that has the capability of stepping in when Barker retires. Once that hire is made, then they will focus on replacements for the other finance positions that have announced future retirement dates.

Holley wants all his managers to train people to replace them.

“A manager’s job is to prepare—spot the talent that’s in your organization, put them in a position of additional responsibility to train them and ready them for ultimately being the manager,” he explained. “So, if something happens and the manager leaves, you’re not in a crisis mode. You know who the person is going to be that’s going to step up.”

Does having a politician as the city’s CEO hurt the stability of the organization?

Holley admits he has never worked in a strong-mayor system. He understands why citizens may want such leadership, particularly if the council gets bogged down and can’t get anything done.

“With the right person in the position, it works well,” he said, pointing out the successes of Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. “In my opinion, when those systems work well, the mayor recognizes that he’s not trained to manage thousands of employers and hires a good manager.”

He explained further, “A strong-mayor system works when you hire a good administrator. The mayor deals with the politics, the policy debates and the vision for the organization.”

Holley doesn’t believe administrators necessarily have to change with each new mayor. He said, “Orlando turns over; managers stay the same. You know, good managers don’t have to leave when a mayor comes in.”

He continued, “So a good mayor—and I think Grover’s a good mayor—can hire the right people, and the organization can run well. If they—and I’m not poking at Ashton—just kind of hire and fire and if it’s not done well and you have turnover, the organization doesn’t run well.”

Holley said Mayor Robinson has given him the freedom to find the best talent. He said, “Hiring buddies is, in my opinion, not a good thing. When Grover asked me to do it, I said, ‘Will you let me put a team together that are good people? And you won’t come in and tell me to hire so-and-so? And as long as we can do that, and you let me try to do what I think I know how to do, then it’ll be great. If you’re going to be like Ashton, I’ll be moaning.’”

When asked about how to boost morale in city hall, Holley said it starts with Mayor Robinson.

“He’s not Ashton,” he said. “Grover’s very personable. He goes to every gathering of employees and social events and the recognitions. At the top, you’ve got an honest, personable, fair, positive guy, and that filters down.”