Thomas Harmer is a man of few words. But he has plenty of wisdom.
Harmer, 55, has a long list of life experiences from which to draw. He is a former 911 dispatcher, firefighter, fire chief, businessman and holds a second-degree black belt in karate. But in the spirit of the martial art — which is only used in self-defense when all other options are exhausted — Harmer is deliberate, focused and speaks only when he has something necessary to say.
The Hollywood, Fla., native stepped in to lead Sarasota County as interim county administrator last week following the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners’ decision to remove Randall Reid from the top county post after less than two years on the job.
At a workshop Tuesday, the County Commission voted 5-0 to keep Harmer in as interim county administrator for a period of at least six months, with the option to revisit the appointment in three months.
That afternoon, his second day as interim administrator, Harmer sat down with the Sarasota Observer to explain how his background in business, emergency management and martial arts has prepared him for a leadership opportunity that few, including him, saw coming.
What lessons has your experience in emergency operations taught you about performing in a crisis?
One of the things you learn in emergency services is to remain calm, not just to make rational decisions but to calm everyone around you. You have to provide leadership and keep the focus on the mission on hand.
Is Sarasota County government in a crisis?
No, not at all. We're very fortunate here to have survived the economic downfall. At the same time, we have tough decisions to make because the economic recovery doesn't happen overnight. In government you try to do the best you can with what you have, so we have to be very careful with our resources.
What drew you to martial arts and how does it affect your leadership style?
There’s a Japanese saying — mizu no kokoro — which means "a mind like water.” In karate, that relates to flexibility and adaptability. It’s about knowing when you have to adapt. That is transferable to this job. Each circumstance is different, there’s no one set sequence of events that will solve every problem.
Will the county commissioners’ critiques of Randall Reid guide your leadership and management style? What lessons did you learn from his firing?
If you don't learn from the past, you're doomed to repeat it. In a general way, we all have to learn from the past and apply that knowledge moving forward.
Some commissioners mentioned bad morale in their critiques of Reid. How do you fix bad morale?
Morale is based on a lot factors — some you can control and some you can't. Good communication, direction, showing progress and empathy to employees for the work they're doing — those are all things you can control. My goal is to create a positive, productive work environment.
We have a good group of employees here who are working hard and trying to do the right thing.
How did your experience in the private sector shape your decision-making as deputy county administrator, and how do you think it will guide your role as county administrator?
I went in the private sector in 2006; I was in real estate development. You learn creativity and how important predictability is for the private sector. Time is money — you learn that in the private sector. But you’re only willing to spend money if things are predictable.
What was your first reaction when you got the call about taking the interim county administrator position?
I was in Atlanta on my way to a conference, just walking off the Jetway when my phone rang. I answered, and I was asked if I would agree to step in as the interim administrator.
I wasn't shocked. I just took it in stride that the board had a need to fill a leadership void, and I was prepared to step in and do what they expected of me.
What is the biggest challenge facing Sarasota County?
Making sure we match the level of service expected of us with the resources we have available.
What will your greatest personal challenge be in this new job?
I'm optimistic about going into this assignment. I'm focused on this as an opportunity to move forward.
If offered the opportunity to permanently take over as county administrator, would you take it?
(Smiles) I expected that one. I don't want to be distracted by that question. I want to focus on what I have to do right now.
And, finally, the question on everyone's mind — you versus Chuck Norris, who wins?
He'd probably kick my butt.
Harmer’s top priorities
• Take care of the county’s day-to-day obligations, such as preparing meeting agendas, addressing resident concerns and providing timely information to commissioners. “When someone needs us, they need to know someone will be here, ready.”
• Clearly define and understand the strategic vision of the County Commission. “I want to quickly get up to speed on all the big issues.”
• Preparing the agenda for the Dec. 5 County Commission retreat.
• Ensure that major projects such as the new Emergency Operations Center/911 Center and the Siesta Beach improvements go smoothly.
Hometown: Born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Hollywood, Fla.
Family: Married 35 years to his wife. He has two sons, ages 32 and 26, who both live in Orlando.
Education: Associate’s degree, Florida State University; bachelor’s degree, University of Cincinnati; master’s degree, University of Central Florida
Last job before coming to Sarasota County: Senior vice president of The Pizzuti Companies in Orlando, overseeing development of commercial and industrial real estate projects
Hobbies: Bicycling, fishing and whitewater rafting, and he is a second-degree black belt in karate, studying the matsubayashi-ryu style.
Last book he read: “American Sniper” by Chris Kyle
Favorite band: Lynyrd Skynyrd. “My core is classic rock.”
A day in the life:
6 a.m. — Wake up
7:30 a.m. — Arrive at work, check email, read the paper, study the day’s schedule.
Daily routine — Harmer said he has between five to seven meetings a day, often including a lunchtime appointment.
5:30 p.m. — Time to wind down. Harmer said he uses the end of the day to follow up on phone calls and take care of any last-minute business.
24/7 — Harmer said he monitors his emails 24 hours a day. “I grew up in emergency services, so I’m always on 24/7,” Harmer said.
Contact Nolan Peterson at email@example.com