The new executive director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District started work on Tuesday. But before he even set foot in the building, he'd already ousted most of his top assistants.
Blake Guillory has already sent two of his deputy executive directors and the agency's longtime attorney packing, and then demoted a third deputy director.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Emilio "Sonny" Vergara, who previously served as executive director of both the Southwest Florida and the St. Johns River water districts. "Nothing like this where the new guy comes in and cleans house."
Guillory, in an interview Wednesday, denied accusations by Vergara and others that his house-cleaning was done at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard, who recently promised to put a tighter leash on the state's five water district agencies.
Although he said the five district directors now have weekly conference calls with DEP officials to coordinate policy and look for spending cuts, he said, "I haven't been on one yet."
He depicted the ousters of so many senior employees as a combination of streamlining a bureaucracy and dealing with potential personality clashes.
"I just told them that they didn't fit on my senior executive team," he said of the two deputies he fired. As for the attorney, "Maybe it's just chemistry. I just felt like I needed to bring in my own general counsel."
Guillory said he met with the two deputy directors to fire them prior to his first day on the job "out of respect for them. … I just felt it was good for us to talk outside the office, to talk as friends."
The house-cleaning came as a surprise to the governing board members who recently hired Guillory, an engineer with no prior experience running a government entity.
Hugh Gramling, vice chairman of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud, said when he met with Guillory last week, Guillory made no mention of getting rid of the agency's top management.
"He told me he was going to take his time and make sure he got things right," Gramling said.
Days later, Guillory was telling one of the deputy directors, Richard Owen, he was out of a job after 30 years with Swiftmud. He did the same to deputy director Bruce Wirth, then demoted deputy director Lou Kavouras and ousted general counsel Bill Bilenky.
Although the board does not vote on who holds those positions, "I really wish he would have given me a heads-up," Gramling said.
Chairman Paul Senft said he was "aware of some of the things he was considering," but did not realize how quickly Guillory would move or who would get the ax. He only knew that Guillory "was evaluating them, and it was a question of which ones would stay and which ones would go," he said.
"Yeah, maybe I may have stumbled a bit in that respect," Guillory said.
The news of the Swiftmud shakeup has left the board members in something of a quandary, said Todd Pressman, who represents Pinellas County on Swiftmud. On the one hand, Pressman said, "we have a new executive director and we need to support him." On the other hand, he said, "the people we're talking about are exemplary employees, outstanding employees."
He singled out Bilenky's dismissal in particular as a shock, since the attorney, who had served for 10 years, filled in as Swiftmud's interim executive director for four months prior to Guillory's hiring.
During that time Bilenky "acted in just an incredible fashion," Pressman said. "His leadership was nothing short of phenomenal."
The man Guillory replaced, Dave Moore, praised all of the ousted employees but would not criticize his successor for clearing the decks before even boarding the ship.
"Any time a new CEO comes into an organization, it's very common for all the senior managers to be evaluated," he said. Asked if Guillory should have notified the board first, Moore would not comment.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.