The Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday to negotiate a resolution that, if passed, would appoint Interim Administrator Scott Hopes as the county’s permanent administrator, a resolution that is scheduled to be heard at the commission’s May 25 meeting.
Commissioner James Satcher added the motion to Tuesday’s agenda the day before the meeting. The vote was 4-3, as Commissioners George Kruse, Reggie Bellamy and Misty Servia dissented.
“We promised something,” Kruse said. “I tell people all the time, ‘You don't have to agree with what I say, but you at least have to believe what I say.’”
Kruse said when some members of the public asked why the interim administrator search process seemed rushed, the commission responded by promising that the permanent administrator search would be thorough and include plenty of opportunities for public input. He said he didn’t see what value there was in hiring Hopes for the permanent role now considering he still has more than 10 months to go on his interim term.
Kruse proposed waiting until Oct. 1 to consider starting the search, at which point commissioners would have likely heard more feedback from the public about Hopes’ performance. He said by then, if the commissioners still want to forgo the search and appoint Hopes to the permanent position for the purpose of saving taxpayer money, at least they would have waited six months into his interim term instead of six weeks.
His argument convinced Servia, who previously said she was inclined to vote in favor of the motion, but no other commissioners were swayed. Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she felt comfortable using the next two weeks as an opportunity to hear from the public and learn whether citizens would like to see Hopes appointed as permanent administrator.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said there isn’t an administrator in the county who could’ve done a better job handling the county’s Piney Point crisis, especially considering it started the same day he was appointed to the interim role. Baugh had previously advocated in favor of a statewide search for the permanent administrator.
She said Hopes deserved to have more latitude in his role than the current contract affords him given the job he has done thus far. Hopes’ interim contract includes limitations on his ability to hire and fire staff, for example.
“I think that sometimes you know when the right person comes along,” Baugh said. “I have talked to many different citizens throughout this county, and I have never had one person tell me that they thought we could do better. Instead, it was, ‘How did you manage to get the right guy immediately?’ And I said, ‘You know what? It was an act of God.’”
Whitmore said the county couldn’t have asked for better performance from Hopes so far, citing his ability to get seven strong-headed commissioners to work as a cohesive unit. She also said the public has been impressed, adding that she hasn’t heard any negative comments about his job performance so far. She said she once agreed with Kruse about the necessity for a national search, but after working with Hopes, she sees this as an opportunity to save taxpayer money.
"Why reinvent the wheel when (Hopes has proven himself)?” Whitmore said.
Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge likened the match to dating, saying that you usually know if you have a match within the first couple of months. He said he is no longer in favor of doing the search because situations evolve, and commissioners shouldn’t spend taxpayer money on something that is no longer a good idea for the sole reason that they previously said they would.
“How am I supposed to sit down and interview someone two or three times — for half an hour or an hour each time, you need to go to lunch with that person — none of that is going to tell me what I've learned in the last six weeks,” Van Ostenbridge said. “None of that can compare to baptism by fire of Piney Point or sitting through these meetings with us. It's not fair to those people. It’s sort of a waste of their time, and certainly a waste of our money.”
Some commissioners expressed support for negotiating a shorter contract, either a two- to three-year deal or a rolling one-year deal, rather than the standard five years given to county administrators in the past.
Kruse said commissioners should be cautious about the salary of the contract considering the public was under the impression Hopes would be on an interim salary for another 10-plus months.