With less than three months in office, interim Sarasota County Administrator Terry Lewis confesses he’s been tempted to think about keeping the position longer than the six months he agreed to after taking a call in June from County Commissioner Joe Barbetta.
“My heart says, ‘Boy, I would love to be here longer,’” he said. “But, then, my mind kicks in, and I realize I don’t have the depth of knowledge to sit behind that desk. There are a lot smarter people out there than me.”
After a 27-year career at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, followed by stints as North Port police chief, then its interim city manager, Lewis said he needs help with decisions about sewer rates, for example, along with economic development, environmentally sensitive lands and chickens.
“Sarasota County government has chickens,” he said. “I wouldn’t have known that.”
Because sitting behind a desk also isn’t his forte, Lewis said he made it a point Aug. 19 to visit the county facility on Pinkney Avenue, where the chickens are housed. They are “sentinel chickens,” and their role is to alert county officials if mosquitoes carrying encephalitis are in the area.
Lewis said he learned about those chickens during his first three days on the job, when the county commissioners engaged in discussions about the upcoming fiscal year budget. And although sitting through those sessions was not how he had hoped to settle into his latest job, ultimately, the experience proved beneficial.
“Those three days were the best way to start this interim period, because it gave me a county-wide perspective of things,” he said.
Since he was hired June 8, Lewis considers rebuilding trust among county employees as his biggest challenge.
“That’s going to take a while,” he said. “It takes a long time for you to get it and you lost it in the snap of the finger.”
Lewis said he first “had to stop the bleeding, which we have done,” referring to the procurement scandal that ultimately led to long-time County Administrator Jim Ley resigning May 24. Lewis has been working through the 151 recommendations offered by a national consulting firm to correct deficiencies in how the county handles procurement matters. Among the steps already taken, he points with pride to the county’s new financial transparency website, www.scgov.net/transparency/transparency.htm. He sees it as a major resource to help restore public faith in the process.
“You can look at every pencil we buy,” he said.
Lewis also was pleased he had been able to hire a procurement manager, Mark Thiele, who started this week.
“I relied on people inside and outside the community … to help with that selection,” Lewis said.
Additionally, Lewis has eliminated six county positions, in part to free up funding so the county also can hire an ethics and compliance officer. He hopes to have that position filled within a few weeks.
He has been spending a lot of time talking with county employees, too.
“I’m finding the folks that work here … want their time with you,” he said. “Everybody’s got something to share (and) they all deserve to be listened to, and at the end of the day, we’ll do what we think is right.”
Because it is impossible for him to talk with all 2,000 employees, Lewis said he periodically sends out what he calls “Terry-grams.”
After he started work in June, he said, he took three or four days to craft his first “Terry-gram.”
“I needed to make sure it didn’t sound clichéd and canned,” he said.
He also wanted employees to learn early on that he had a sense of humor.
“The feedback I got from that ‘Terry-gram’ … was beyond anything I expected,” he said. “That’s what people are looking for: Somebody to sit and listen and allow you to laugh a little bit.”
‘Bosses’ offer words of praise
Even in email, interim Sarasota County Administrator Terry Lewis exhibits a different style from former County Administrator Jim Ley. Lewis doesn’t hesitate to start off an email with “Boss” if he is directing it to a specific county commissioner, or even “Boss x 5” if it is going to all five.
His management style has won raves from those bosses.
Joe Barbetta: “I find him refreshing, conscientious, dedicated to doing what’s best for the citizens of the entire county, and very fair in his approach to governing. He has hit the ground running, not being afraid to make key decisions, shake things up where necessary, listening to all sides and considering the facts before making decisions, and all in all, an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Carolyn Mason: “He is doing an outstanding job … He’s thorough; he’s fair; he’s approachable; he’s just good … I’m sorry he won’t apply for the permanent job, but I truly respect retirement. (When he does retire) he will be greatly missed.”
Nora Patterson: “I really like Terry. He’s got a great sense of humor and a very upbeat attitude. He definitely is not one to stay indefinitely. God knows what he’ll end up doing next.”
Christine Robinson: “He’s doing a great job. He has a big job in front of him, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, which is really refreshing. … He’s cutting through the weeds of bureaucracy … I really feel like (the county is) getting a lot done with him. … I have nothing but good things to say about him.”
Jon Thaxton: “I think it was most fortuitous for Terry to have been available at a time we most needed him. He has worked out beyond my expectations … He just fit the prescription to a T. It’s pretty hard to argue with (his) transparency and openness.”