Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday June 25th 2019

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COW Notes

By Rick Outzen

At its Thursday, March 14, Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting, the Escambia Board of County Commissioners scheduled a special meeting for April 29 to interview finalists for the replacement of County Administrator Jack Brown, who announced his retirement last fall.

The current interim administrator, Amy Lovoy, told the commissioners, “I have just north of 120 unique applicants.”

Escambia County Human Resources Director Eric Kleinert added that at least 75 names would be passed on for review by the Florida Association of County Managers, which would then present a list of finalists to the county.

The application period was set to end on Monday, March 18, but Commission Chairman Lumon May asked for a 10-day extension.

“Commissioner Bender and I were in Washington at NACO (National Association of Counties), and some people weren’t necessarily aware (of the job opening) but got excited after talking to them,” said Commissioner May. “Would y’all be open to extending it for 10 days for a couple of guys that I know that were going to try to get their applications in?”

Commissioner Steven Barry asked whether there were any risks in extending the application period.

“No sir, I believe it’s a regular practice we engage in when we’re seeking to have a larger applicant pool,” replied Kleinert.

Commissioner Doug Underhill said, “Then it would seem there being no risk in that and the possibility of a reward of having more or better applicants, then, by all means, Lumon, I support your action there.”

Kleinert explained the screening of 120-plus applicants didn’t have to wait for the extended application period to end and that the screening process had already begun.

“Last check, we had about 75 that we would pass on to the county managers,” he said.  “They just simply didn’t make the minimum qualifications.”

The selection committee that will review the qualified applicants is comprised of Leon County Administrator Vince Long, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones and Don Butler, the former administrator for Gulf County.

Commissioner Barry expressed a sense of urgency in keeping the hiring process advancing.

“In my opinion, we do need to get the process going,” said Barry. “It’s difficult for an interim administrator to lead. It’s difficult for a board to work with an interim administrator. That’s not ideal. I would be uncomfortable adding 10 more days. All I would ask, especially since we’re making good time, can we firm up the days of when they’re coming back to us and when we’re going do interviews?”

“We shouldn’t gum anything up,” reassured Commissioner May. “They can start evaluating them, like yesterday. The 10 days is just allowing people to apply. It’s not holding up or impeding the process at all. I wouldn’t do that.”

After more discussion, the commissioners agreed to extend the application deadline to Thursday, March 28 and set April 29 for a special meeting to interview the finalists.

“At least we’re setting these dates in the future,” said Commissioner Barry. “I think by doing this, you’re leaving that window open for some of the folks that y’all may have interacted with at NACO, but we’re also giving some firm deadlines and timelines to people so that they can plan. I think that’d be great.”

Ghost from the Past
In Escambia County, choosing a county administrator historically has been a monumental effort. Before Jack Brown was selected administrator in April 2014, the Board of County Commissioners for two years had debated and fought over whether Interim County Administrator George Touart should be made the administrator.

Touart was hired as temporary administrator after County Administrator Randy Oliver was fired in October 2012 by commissioners Gene Valentino, Wilson Robertson and Kevin White. The public was told Touart would fill the spot for about six months. He would thereby become vested in the state retirement system. Six months turned into 15 months with Valentino and Robertson constantly pressuring May, Barry and then-Commissioner Grover Robinson to give the job to Touart.

When Touart died in January 2014, Robertson made a last-minute push for Assistant Administrator Larry Newsom, who had not applied for the permanent job, to get the position. He offered a substitute motion to drop all five candidates and start over. That was defeated on a 3-2 vote, with Robertson and Valentino voting in favor.

The interim job was Touart’s second time to be at the helm of Escambia County government. In 2002, he was hired by the commission that included W.D. Childers, Willie Junior, Mike Bass, Terry Smith and Tom Banjanin under equally bizarre circumstances.

The commissioners had first offered the job to Norfolk, Va., City Executive Sterling Cheatham, but Cheatham rejected the offer after the board called him on speakerphone during a meeting to give him a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Touart was in the audience and was offered the job. Childers, Bass, Smith and Junior were soon indicted by a grand jury.

Touart would hold the position until September 2007, when he abruptly resigned after a News Journal investigation into his financial dealings.

Bye, Ms. Judy
The Committee of the Whole was the last meeting for Judy Witterstaeter, the agenda program coordinator for the Board of County Commissioners, who is retiring.

“I just want to say it’s been an honor and just an amazing experience,” she told the commissioners. “You all don’t really get enough praise for the hard decisions you have to make. I’ve learned so much being here, and now I see really what is involved with Escambia County.”

Witterstaeter added, “You’re all doing your best to make that happen. So thank you so much for allowing me to do that. It’s been a real honor.”

Chairman May said, “Judy, thank you. When I first became chairman, I was nervous, didn’t know what I was doing. You’re like a mother sitting here always making us feel right.”

Commissioners Underhill and Bergosh echoed those sentiments. Underhill said, “Judy, long after the negatives of these jobs have faded from our memories, we will remember, I know personally I will absolutely remember, the impact that you had on my life. You’ve made me a better person. Thanks.”

“Thank you very much for everything you’ve done and for helping to keep me straight last year as chairman,” said Bergosh. “I really appreciate it and wish you the best in your retirement.”

The BCC will honor Witterstaeter with a reception on Friday, March 29, in the Artel Gallery. Tentative start time is 11 a.m.