Bruce St. Denis, former Longboat Key town manager, was the only one of five Sarasota County candidates to make the Sarasota County administrator semi-finalists list delivered to the county this week.
The Mercer Group, the consulting firm hired by the County Commission to conduct the search for former Administrator Jim Ley’s replacement, pared its original group of 45 applications to nine this week. However, one of those candidates, John Eskilson, county administrator of Sussex County, N.J., subsequently withdrew his name.
Among the other seven candidates, five are from Florida, one is from York, S.C., and the other is from Augusta, Ga.
“I’m glad to be on the list,” St. Denis said Wednesday morning. “We love this community, and I’d like the chance to continue serving it.”
St. Denis resigned in September after 14 years as Longboat Key town manager. His action followed news that he would receive a negative evaluation.
St. Denis said he plans to attend the County Commission discussion Nov. 8, when the board is scheduled to narrow the list of semi-finalists down to three to five names. He already has been attending County Commission meetings, he said, and talking with people about county issues.
The four county candidates who did not make the list were Deputy Sarasota City Manager Marlon C.J. Brown; Longboat Key Police Chief Al Hogle; John C. Minder, a registered professional engineer; and Lorraine M. Vervoordt, a Venice business process consultant.
In an Oct. 31 letter to Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson, James L. Mercer, president and CEO of The Mercer Group, wrote that after evaluating all the candidates according to criteria established by the County Commission, “and conducting a preliminary evaluation of each candidate,” the firm had narrowed its pool. However, he added, “We are continuing to investigate some allegations made against some of these nine candidates.”
The Mercer Group came under fire in Sarasota when it conducted the search for a new city manager that resulted in Robert Bartolotta winning the position. After Bartolotta was named a finalist, allegations arose that he had attempted to smother his critically ill wife several years earlier. A nurse had implicated him, but no evidence was produced to lead to an arrest. Nonetheless, when The Mercer Group held its focus groups in Sarasota in September to learn what attributes the public wanted in a new county administrator, Susan Chapman, a member of the city Planning Board, told John T. Maxwell of The Mercer Group that she hoped the firm would be more diligent in background checks this time.
Regarding the number of semi-finalists, Patterson said Wednesday, “I’m surprised it’s such a small list.” She added, “I still feel, based on my conversations with Mr. Mercer, that the search period was too compressed.”
Mercer had proposed closing the application period Oct. 28; instead, the commission agreed on Oct. 21, saying electronic communications would not hinder those interested in the post from applying in time.
Patterson said she was going to compare The Mercer Group list against her own list from the group of 45 names forwarded to the county last week.
And although The Mercer Group had indicated it would be able to provide a list of 15 semi-finalists, Patterson said she could not come up with that many herself from reviewing the resumes.
However, Commissioner Joe Barbetta said he felt the economy and the scrutiny candidates undergo were the primary factors in the number of semi-finalists. “I still don’t equate (the number) to the time constraints at all,” he said Wednesday.
Candidates typically end up with hometown newspaper exposure, he added, so they worry their current employers will let them go.
Meet the candidates
The Sarasota County Commission Nov. 8 will discuss the semi-finalists for county administrator and pare the list to three to five names. That regular meeting will be held at the Anderson Center, 4000 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice.
Public meet-and-greet sessions with the candidates will be held at 4 p.m. Nov. 13, at the Venice Community Center, 326 S. Nokomis Ave., Venice, and at 6 p.m. Nov. 14, at the Potter Building at Robarts Arena, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.
Nov. 15, the commission tentatively plans to settle on its choice and extend an offer to the candidate. If needed, the commission has set aside Nov. 17 for further deliberation.
The candidates from Florida:
• Jim Chisholm, city manager of Daytona Beach since 2004. From 2000 to 2004, he was the DeSoto County administrator. He wrote in his letter to The Mercer Group that he had 32 years of experience in county and city government. “My record in economic development will demonstrate a vision to solve issues that hinder progressive growth initiatives,” he added. His resume says, “My management style is open, approachable and visionary.”
• David Hamilton, of Spring Hill, county administrator of Hernando County since 2008. As president of the Suncoast chapter of the American Association of Public Administration, Hamilton wrote in his letter, “I am familiar with the challenges and opportunities Sarasota offers.” He added that his continuing graduate work had been “focused on sustainable urban land use and regional geography.”
• Eric Johnson, of Tampa, director of strategic planning and enterprise resource planning for Hillsborough County; he was assistant county administrator from 2008 to 2011 and the county’s director of management and budget from 1993 to 2008. In his letter to The Mercer Group, Johnson wrote, “The current and future challenges that face the Sarasota County government are well-aligned with my experience in fiscal management, procurement, community, ethics and customer service at Hillsborough County.”
• Edward Mitchell, city administrator for West Palm Beach for more than 12 years. He was assistant city administrator from 1993 to 1999. “I have developed the technical abilities, interpersonal skills and political sensitivity to succeed as the county administrator in Sarasota County,” he wrote.
• Randall Reid, of Gainesville, county manager of Alachua County since 1999. He pointed out in his resume that he had had more than 36 years of professional managerial experience in city and county jurisdictions, serving populations up to 250,000. He added that he puts focus “on creating resilient, sustainable communities, exhibiting concern for the natural and as-built environments, emphasizing local business expansion, secure neighborhoods and civic and economic vitality through community festivals, heritage tourism and the arts.”
The two candidates from outside Florida:
• James Baker, manager of York County, S.C., since 2007. From 1991 to June 2007, he was director of administration and chief of staff to the county executive in St. Louis County, Mo. In his letter to The Mercer Group, Baker wrote that he was proud of his association with St. Louis County when it attained the AAA credit rating from all three major credit rating agencies.
• Fred Russell, administrator of the city of Augusta, Ga., since January 2005. He was deputy administrator from January 2002 to December 2004. In his resume, Russell said he has more than 35 years of “result-oriented government experience,” with expertise in such areas as customer service, financial operations and budget, communication skills and strategic planning.