Polking Around

by Kemp Brinson

Winter Haven’s Crossroads

(Note 9/20/16: This post disappeared for a couple of days because I changed web hosts. The site was migrated to the new host using a backup from before this post was made, so when the new host went live, this post was not on it. It had to be moved over manually, later.)

With the news of Deric Feacher’s ouster as city manager in Winter Haven, this is just the first step down a road that might be tough going for a few months. What do we do now?

Thanks, Deric Feacher!

First things first, I appreciate and thank Deric Feacher and his service to our community. Deric is acknowledged, even by those who voted to remove him, to be a good man, a great spokesman for the City and excellent at public communication. In my personal experience, he is ethical, honest, and hard-working. He handled this whole affair with dignity and professionalism, did not take the bait to argue with his bosses, and kept his head high. Whomever he serves next, in the public or private sector, will be lucky to have him. We were lucky to have him. Thank you, Deric.

And thank you…. commissioners?

This may seem out of place, but I thank the commissioners for their work. I disagree with three of them, but I know how hard a job it is. I will be steadfast in my criticism, but please do not take it personally. Just as all of you acknowledged your appreciation for Deric’s service and his many positive attributes, I do the same with each of you. Even if I might eventually vote to fire one or more of you, I do so with respect to the position and the person serving in it.

I think that some of the criticisms the public has directed at you have been below the belt. I am not convinced of racial motivations, for example, but if you had done a better job of justifying your decision based on clear facts, and given Mr. Feacher a clear opportunity to meet your expectations in a transparent and public way, you would not have been accused of that.

Should Mr. Feacher have been terminated?

I strongly disagree with his termination. I have very little to add that has not been said by others except my personal experience with his administration, for what it is worth. The fight for Mr. Feacher’s job is over, so this is of relevance primarily to illustrate a lingering problem that still needs solving.

I had very close interactions with Mr. Feacher’s leadership in three ways: the failed Landings project and proposed relocation of Theatre Winter Haven (Mr. Feacher was Assistant City Manager at that time), my co-chairmanship of the City’s Efficiency Committee, and as a candidate for City Commission last year. In all three projects, when I requested information, I got it. When I requested access to staff, I got it. When I needed documents, I got them. When I needed to understand an issue more deeply, staff took the time to help me understand it.

But what they required of me was important: engagement. The Commission cannot expect staff to spoon feed them all relevant information, take leadership on politically controversial topics for them, and hand them all the underlying facts, neatly packaged and ready for cursory skimming. Staff has no time to spare for commissioners who do not have time to become well-informed. Political leadership is not entirely analogous to being on the board of a private company or a traditional employee/employer relationship. Political leaders have to actively engage inside and outside of meetings if they expect to accomplish their agendas.

It is apparent that there was, in fact, a disconnect between Mr. Feacher and Commissioners Twyford, Chichetto, and Hunnicutt. It is quite possible that Mr. Feacher deserves part of the blame for that. It is also possible that he gave them less time and energy than he gave to Mayor Dantzler and Commissioner Birdsong. I don’t know. I do know that by eliminating Feacher we have not eliminated the problem. I encourage these three Commissioners to take a harder look at their own level of engagement. Maybe their lack of engagement from Mr. Feacher was not entirely without justification.

Interim City Manager T. Michael Stavres

The commission wisely appointed the most obvious person as interim city manager, Assistant City Manager T. Michael Stavres. It is natural to ask whether he might be a candidate for the permanent job.

Mr. Stavres has been with the City a very long time and has a wealth of institutional knowledge. He has run numerous diverse departments and projects. In my experience, he is engaging, smart, honest, transparent, politically savvy, technically astute, and thoughtful. Is he, perhaps, better suited to be an administrator than a visionary? And is he too smart to even want the job? I’m not sure, but I am sure he is already getting asked that question. If I were a commissioner, it is the first question I would ask him.

He may be a classic Catch-22. To be our city manager, you must not be insane. But if you want to be, you clearly are.

In any event, our City is in extremely good hands for the time being. We do need to minimize the amount of time that our chief executive has an “interim” title. Without the mandate of a full appointment, it is tough to implement bold decisions about controversial issues.

Should any commissioners be recalled?

There is a statutory mechanism to recall commissioners and remove them from office. It involves carefully constructed petitions, review of signatures, and a special election to vote on the recall and on a successor. There is talk of such an effort in the community. Some of that talk is directed only a Commissioner Twyford. Some of it is also directed as Commissioners Chichetto and Hunnicutt. Some have even floated my name as a possible replacement.

I won’t rule out running for commission again, but would be extremely reluctant to do it as part of a recall election. The people did not vote for me last year, and I respect that.

It is important to approach a recall thoughtfully and carefully. Someone with passion for the issue and the energy to get it done would need to spearhead the effort. It would require a group of committed community members working together to accomplish. It would also be very difficult. Recalls are nasty, nasty affairs. If unsuccessful, there is a risk of it so poisoning the relationship between the commission, staff, citizens, and stakeholders, that moving the City forward may become ponderously difficult. One of the three commissioners, Commissioner Hunnicutt, is up for re-election in a year. Maybe that is best time and place for this discussion.

So, I am not necessarily anti-recall, but I won’t lead any effort to do it, and I am inherently skeptical of it. I think that, now that the damage is done, there may be more productive ways to address our concerns.

What are the more productive next steps?

We need to do three things.

One is to hire the right city manager. That can only be effectively and transparently done in an environment that does not involve the turmoil of a threatened recall. What qualified candidate would join our City in the midst of that sort of thing?

I see Deric Feacher as, in some ways, the opposite of former city manager David Greene. Mr. Greene moved the City forward in many, many ways, but he was clearly doing so under an agenda that was his own, and not perfect. Those who did not subscribe to it better have gotten out of the way.

Mr. Feacher’s style was much more deferential to consensus. He was reluctant to take bold controversial positions, deferring instead to stakeholder committees and clear direction from the commission (which was sadly often lacking). He was, first and foremost, our community’s best advocate and spokesperson, not its dictator.

Maybe we need someone in the middle. We need a city manager with serious public administration credentials who is willing to set and push an agenda like Mr. Greene, but with some of the consensus-building instincts and contagious passion of Mr. Feacher who can move that agenda forward with the support of, and not in spite of, the community.

T. Michael Stavres might fit the bill. That option should be thoroughly explored first, if it is open to us, and if he is interested.

The second thing we need to do is rip off the band aid and deal with the employee pension issue head-on. Commissioners need to stop looking to staff to recommend a neatly packaged solution that pleases everyone. No such solution exists. Instead, the commission needs to give more clear direction on the way they want to go. The Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendations are an excellent starting point for that discussion.

This decision is going to be controversial and difficult, but it has lingered for too long due to the commission’s reluctance to be proactive about it. That needs to change. And the primary responsibility for recommending a solution needs to not fall on the lap of interim city manager T. Michael Stavres. The buck stops with the commission.

Importantly, some commissioners may need to be willing to compromise in order to get three votes.

The third thing we need to do, and I am almost reluctant to even bother wasting my time to suggest it again, is some real commission-level strategic planning. The commission needs to decide what is most important to them and give staff some clear direction on projects and reforms in a prioritized order. Without that, no city manager is ever going to meet their expectations. Why this has not been done yet is mind-boggling. The efficiency committee pushed it. Mr. Feacher pushed it. Even some of the commissioners pushed it during their election campaigns.

So let’s put this behind us and get to work, OK?

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