Clewiston forms city manager search panel

CLEWISTON — After re-electing their officers Mali Gardner and Michael Atkinson as mayor and vice mayor, respectively, Clewiston city commissioners Monday night took several decisive steps toward finding a new manager to run the city after the sudden resignation of Al Perry.

And the new voice on the commission, Melanie McGahee, who won the most votes in the Nov. 6 election, exerted considerable influence in leading the discussion toward those decisions. When Mr. Atkinson’s nomination of Kristine Petersen to become mayor died for lack of a second, Ms. McGahee spoke up to renominate Mayor Gardner and, with a second by Commissioner Julio Rodriguez, she was confirmed unanimously. As the candidate who finished third Nov. 6, however, the mayor will face voters again in 2020. Ms. McGahee’s and the re-elected Ms. Petersen’s terms will end in 2022.

Ms. Gardner asked City Attorney Gary Brandenburg to preface commissioners’ discussion on how to proceed in filling the manager position, and he recommended they immediately name an interim manager to assume Mr. Perry’s authority for executing official documents and actions during the next few weeks or longer, and utilize him only as a consultant until his last day, Dec. 17.

She said she’d contacted the Florida League of Cities to inquire about using its advisers and resources available to assist cities in transition, and had forwarded her fellow commissioners the information. “I do believe we need someone right now at the city to help us over the next few weeks. And I don’t know that we can bring anybody in at this time that has the knowledge and the experience as our finance director. I believe that in an interim basis, she can … be the contact between the directors and also the liaison with Mr. Perry to make sure that we don’t miss anything in this transition. I have confidence in the ability to be the gatekeeper and to keep things going,” she said of finance chief Shari Howell.

Commissioner Petersen agreed that was a good idea. “And I think with the cadre of directors that we have, and the support and the unique ability they have to get along and interact with each other, that that would be a good support basis for that to happen in the interim.”

They’ll seek additional help from the Senior Advisors, a program available through two city/county managers associations, the ICMA and the FCCMA. “They do have options that we could just handle the search ourselves, that we could handle it through them or that we could hire a headhunter,” said the mayor.

Ms. Petersen made a motion to tap Ms. Howell as the interim manager, and Mr. Atkinson seconded it for discussion.

Then Commissioner McGahee spoke. “I’m a little bit worried about how long we go without leadership. I think we have to have strong leadership — that’s what we’ve been lacking for a while — and I want us to really focus in on that.” She said she favored appointing Ms. Howell as the authority until an interim city manager could be hired, and agreed Mr. Perry should be relieved of that duty.

She said she’d looked at what other cities had done; “a lot of them will bring in retired city commissioners or managers to serve as interim city managers.” She proposed two ideas that fellow commissioners ended up embracing, suggesting former manager Wendell Johnson, who “has been asked if he would be willing to serve in this capacity and has responded favorably.” She said he knows the city, its personnel and its issues and “he’s a known product.”

Ms. McGahee said that Mr. Johnson, who retired from the position in 2009, could help in hiring a new city manager. Then, stating she doesn’t really know “what we need in that department,” she added, “We need to do that with a lot of community participation.” She called for the commissioners to establish an advisory panel, each naming one member, and to reach out to business owners in the community for input.

Mr. Rodriguez said that when he was elected to the commission he “inherited Mr. Johnson, and he kind of brought me under his wing, and I learned a lot from him.” He noted that the city has hired four managers during his commission tenure, adding that “the opportunity to get it right is now. I want to get the right person.”

Mayor Gardner said Ms. McGahee’s ideas all had merit and asked attorney Brandenburg how the commissioners should proceed. He guided them toward agreement on actions they needed to take, all of which were approved unanimously, to:

• Name Shari Howell interim city manager to relieve Mr. Perry;

• Work with the senior advisors;

• Establish a search committee which will also advise the commission whether to do the search in-house, advertising for candidates and conducting interviews themselves, or to hire a headhunting company to do it; and

• Schedule meetings with Mr. Johnson for each commissioner and potentially discuss a temporary employment contract with him.

On their list of appointments and reappointments to county and regional bodies, changes were necessary because former Commissioner Phillip Roland had served in some of those capacities. Replacing him as the city’s representative to the Hendry County Industrial Development Authority is Mr. Atkinson; Ms. McGahee will take his place on the Board of Building Commissioners; and Mayor Gardner asked to assume his seat on the 16 County Coalition, which is a separate body, made up of representatives from each of the counties covered by the South Florida Water Management District, that advocates the “Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon.”

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