A targeted approach to recruiting a new town manager has worked before, so the Town Commission has decided to first try that path to replace the retiring Tom Harmer by the end of the year.
Harmer in June told commissioners and town staff that he plans to step away in December, five years after coming to the town from his previous role as Sarasota County administrator. He would have been eligible for contract renewal in August.
Commissioners in 2017 focused on Harmer as their first choice, forgoing a broad search for candidates and signed him to a five-year deal on July 17 of that year to start Dec. 11, 2017. He replaced Dave Bullock, who had served for 14 years as a deputy administrator for Sarasota County and likewise was eventually targeted as a potential job candidate for the town.
When seeking to replace Bruce St. Denis in 2011, the town first focused on a range of local candidates, many of whom pointed to Bullock. He stepped aside in early 2018 following about a month of overlap with Harmer, who arrived in December 2017.
"It’s a sad day for us, the commission, and for the town," Mayor Ken Schneier said of Harmer's announcement. "I’ve asked him to reconsider, but his plans are fixed and understandable. If there’s any good news is that we time to fill this position. It’s the biggest job that we have as a commission, bar none."
Schneier said even after Harmer leaves, his legacy will remain not only in the work he’s done but also with the department heads and managers he’s brought to the town.
Public Works Director Isaac Brownman and Planning, Zoning and Building Director Allen Parsons came to the town from similar roles in Sarasota County Government, the town’s Director of Support Services, Carolyn Brown, came from Sarasota’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources department in late 2018. Michael Regnier, the chief of Sarasota County’s fire-rescue department, came to Longboat Key in December, 2021 to serve as an assistant chief after 33 years with the county.
"As I looked out and my contract was coming to a natural term ending in December that probably the timing was right, but it doesn’t make it any easier," Harmer said. "When I was hired five years ago, I made a commitment to those commissioners back then to stay at least five years. And it was important to me to maintain that commitment."
Harmer said he made his announcement in June to give the Town Commission ample time to begin recruiting ahead of and during their annual two and a half month summer break, which began July 1. The sale of Harmer’s home in Bay Isles is pending, having been on the real estate market for 61 days.
"I don’t plan to apply anywhere else for a city or county manager, if I did I would truly stay here because I think this is the best local government job in the state of Florida," Harmer said, adding colleagues around Florida have asked him when he was going to "get out of the way" to allow someone else a chance at the role.
In recommending three approaches to recruiting, Harmer said commissioners could focus on:
- Internal candidates
- A targeted effort focusing on specific people
- External recruitment
"You could rent a plane and fly it down the beach, you could take out an ad in the Wall Street Journal, you could do a Florida advertisement, you could take an internal candidate and make them an interim and see how that works," he said.
In a public hiring and recruitment process, Harmer said, candidates who already work for municipalities or counties can be reticent to apply to a general job solicitation. Identifying a candidate and then approaching them directly can eliminate some of that wariness on the way to finding a strong candidate.
"It’s really up to you," Harmer told commissioners.
Commissioner BJ Bishop said that if the targeted approach doesn’t show signs of progress by mid-August, she said the town needs to be prepared to move ahead on a second approach such as looking at internal candidates or involving a recruiting company, though she said she hasn't had good experiences with recruiters.
"The best people aren’t going to risk losing their job wherever they are without the certainty that this job is available," Bishop said.
Commissioners also agreed that pursuing someone with experience dealing with Florida laws and agencies makes sense, which further points toward considering a targeted approach to recruiting.
Florida open government laws allow one on one conversations between elected officials and a job candidate, but discussions as an elected board must be public. Harmer and Town Attorney Maggie Mooney can meet with candidates and discuss such topics as compensation but they can’t literally offer a job.
"We can bring back a recommendation to you," Mooney said.
Harmer said when he was recruited in 2018, Mooney and Bullock brought him a draft contract to review. When he agreed to the terms, the contract was brought before the Town Commission in a public setting for a vote.