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Convenient, but ...

Longboat’s Town Commission appears ready to hire Sarasota County’s Tom Harmer as the next town manager. He looks like a good fit. But do you buy the first car you see and like?

  • Longboat Key
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Hire slowly, fire quickly. 

That’s one of the great rules of business. But it’s so often violated — both ends of it.

On the back end, employers tend to be optimists. So they keep hoping that new hire — after 90 days, 120 days, after one year or more — is going to blossom into that all-star they thought they saw in the job interview. And every time, when they finally face the fact that he or she isn’t going to work out, every employer says: “I should have ended it  sooner — for both our sakes.”

On the front end, hiring, if truth be told, is a complete roll of the dice. It’s such a painful process that employers easily succumb to convenience and the urge to get it done.

Too often to the employer’s regret.

Many of Longboat Key’s town commissioners know these experiences. They lived them in their professional lives as managers and leaders who hired and fired: Mayor Terry Gans, as a senior executive of a Northeast grocery chain; Irwin Pastor, owner of one of the largest Pepsi distribution companies in the Northeast; George Spoll, a Connecticut residential developer; Randy Clair, a senior lawyer at Mobil; Jack Daly, CEO of Columbia Gas’ distribution companies.

And yet with all of this experience, it appears they are heading toward rejecting “the hire slowly” approach. The Town Commission is expected to consider Monday a contract to hire incumbent Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer.

You can rationalize plenty of good reasons to hire Harmer.

n He has been successful for the past five years in his role with Sarasota County government. If you ask anyone in the county, he or she most likely cannot think of one damning controversy that has erupted because of Harmer’s bad judgment or leadership.

n He would bring familiarity — to Longboat Key and to himself. He’s a known quantity. Longboat commissioners have seen him in action and already know — to some extent — the type of leader and manager they would be hiring. Harmer, likewise, knows the region’s issues and officials. He would be able to navigate those external channels from Day One. And the learning curve for him understanding Longboat Key likely would take much less time than it would for an outsider.

n He’s convenient (there’s that word). He would spare the town and commissioners the time, pain and cost of a wider search.

n And his hiring would close quickly the risk of not having a replacement on the job by the time outgoing Town Manager David Bullock leaves at the end of the year. You could credit town commissioners for acting promptly and making sure there is plenty of time to acclimate Harmer to Longboat’s ways — to be sure a sign of decisive leadership.

These are all legitimate reasons for hiring Harmer now.

But as we say in the news business, there are two sides to every story (at least two). 

Have commissioners considered and explored enough other options? Have they fully vetted Harmer?

Based on the town’s successful experience with Bullock, a former assistant Sarasota County administrator, you can understand the thinking that Harmer could be a repeat of Bullock. Indeed, Bullock was everything and more the town needed at the time of his hiring. In fact, we, among many others, wish he would stay on.

But lightning seldom strikes twice in the same place. Commissioners owe it to themselves and their taxpayers to give this important decision time to percolate and consider whether other options or candidates would be better.

Start with what is needed. The commissioners — essentially a board of directors — are selecting a CEO who will lead and manage the town staff effectively and who will mesh well with the culture of Town Hall and the commissioners. 

This is not a case of Bullock’s successor inheriting an incompetent, dysfunctional staff that requires a flushing and turnaround. To the contrary, Bullock has built a competent team. And it reflects Bullock’s thoughtful, business-like style.

Likewise, it’s apparent Bullock’s style fits well with commissioners. He has never been a grandstander who constantly needs approval. Bullock’s style can be described as an even-keeled leader who is good at anticipating what must be addressed before it becomes a problem; offers well-thought-out options; and communicates effectively with commissioners, rarely, if ever, surprising them.

Culture and values are important. In that vein, having observed Harmer from across the bay, Harmer’s temperament, values and skills are much like Bullock’s.

Even so, and even if you have the right feeling, human instincts also are such that they tell us not to buy the first tomato you pick up from the pile or the first new car you test drive. See what else is out there. Reaffirm your instincts.

Harmer may be the best candidate for the town manager’s job. But taxpayers should be assured, and commissioners should reassure themselves that Harmer isn’t the only good tomato, that he is the best tomato in the pile. Hire slowly.


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