The only Sarasota County semi-finalist failed to make the cut Tuesday as the Sarasota County Commission narrowed the field to four candidates in its effort to hire a new administrator.
Although County Commissioner Joe Barbetta offered positive comments about Bruce St. Denis, the former Longboat Key town manager, St. Denis won no more than two votes during a winnowing process suggested by Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson.
The finalists are James Baker, manager of York County, S.C.; Edward Mitchell, administrator of West Palm Beach; Randall Reid, manager of Alachua County; and Fred Russell, administrator of the consolidated city/county government of Augusta, Ga.
In his comments about St. Denis, Barbetta said that although some Longboat town residents “say that we’re nuts (to consider him), others say he’s done an incredible job … I just feel he’s worth being on the list to talk to.”
Patterson disagreed with Barbetta, saying she felt managing a town with a population much smaller than the county’s was not a strong enough qualification. She added that the new administrator would be managing 2,000 people.
For the same reason, she said, Marlon Brown, Sarasota’s deputy city manager, also had not made her short list.
James Mercer, president and CEO of The Mercer Group, the consulting firm hired to conduct the search for a replacement for former Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley, said he had placed St. Denis 14 years ago in the Longboat town manager’s position. Because St. Denis had worked before that as director of facility management in Pinellas County for about 10 years, Mercer had found him qualified as a semi-finalist.
During the discussion Tuesday, which was part of a regular meeting in Venice, Mercer told the commissioners he had not begun background checks on the eight people he had proposed last week as semi-finalists.
Patterson pointed out that the county’s first meet-and-greet with the finalists is Sunday and was hoping the background checks would be completed before then.
“We typically don’t do that until we have a meeting like we’re having today,” Mercer told the commission. Nonetheless, he said, his staff had started working on three or four of the names. No results have come back yet.
The commission was hoping to avoid any problems “that might make us reduce our list to a couple of names,” such as private bankruptcy, Patterson said.
Mercer had done some checking on the Internet, he said, just to see what types of comments he could find about the semi-finalists. Commissioners also said they had undertaken their own Internet searches.
When Mercer began a review of the remaining semi-finalists, Patterson stopped him.
“You’re not telling us what’s good about them that you put them on the short list … That’s what I was hoping for,” she said.
Of Baker, Mercer said people he had talked with in York, S.C., had only positive things to say about him.”
Regarding Russell, Mercer noted that Augusta’s demographics were quite different from Sarasota County’s, but he felt Russell’s position as deputy administrator there for two years before he became administrator in 2005 was a positive factor.
Mercer said he knew Mitchell quite well. Although the unions in West Palm Beach did not like Mitchell, Mercer added, “I think he’s done an excellent job, and he’s lasted through a couple of different mayors.”
After a discussion about how to proceed with their choices, Patterson turned to Thaxton and asked for his top-three candidates. He listed Reid, Baker and St. Denis — in that order.
Commissioner Carolyn Mason proposed Reid, Baker, Russell and Willie Best, of Chapel Hill, N.C., a candidate with county management experience.
Commissioner Christine Robinson suggested Mitchell.
“My other ones have already been mentioned,” she said.
Patterson said her short list included Russell, Reid and Baker, with Mitchell as a “maybe.”
Mercer pointed out that Mitchell was a past president of the Florida City and County Management Association, adding that Mitchell’s peers selected him for the post.
Meetings scheduled next week
The first “meet-and-greet” public meeting for the finalists for Sarasota County administrator will be held at 4 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Venice Community Center, 326 S. Nokomis Ave., Venice. Each candidate will be given an opportunity to talk about his experience; a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the public will follow. Then the candidates and the public will have about an hour to socialize.
At 6 p.m. Nov. 14, the second “meet-and-greet” session will be held at the Potter Building at Robarts Arena, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. The format will be the same as that for the Nov. 13 session.
The commissioners will conduct public interviews with the candidates between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. Nov. 15. Following the interviews, the commissioners may rank the candidates and decide whether to make an offer to one of them. If necessary, the commissioners will meet again Nov. 17 to continue their deliberations.