BROOKSVILLE — Just days before interviews are scheduled, the only finalist with experience in Florida has dropped out of the running for the Hernando County administrator's job.
On Friday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced that Robert Michael "Mike" Herr has been appointed as the city's new administrator of public works and utility services.
Herr, a former deputy administrator for Hernando as well as a former Polk County administrator, is president of Econ South, a private-sector engineering, development and management services firm. He was to be laid off in June for economic reasons.
That leaves Hernando with three finalists from which to choose: Ed Green, who most recently was the county manager for Garfield County, Colo.; Len Sossamon, who has extensive experience as a city manager and a county administrator in the Carolinas and has most recently been a developer; and James Wilson, who grew up in Florida and spent years in Galveston County, Texas, in a job similar to that of a county administrator.
Herr is the second finalist to drop out this week in Hernando. John Daly of Michigan dropped out earlier in the week, saying he didn't think the job was a good fit for him.
Colin Baenziger, who heads the search firm that brought the candidates to the commission, contacted commissioners Friday morning with the news.
Herr wrote to Baenziger: "I was very excited about the Hernando position, but in this economy a bird in the hand is far greater than an offer that may or may not happen."
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he was concerned about the shrinking field. After he learned that Herr had been hired by Tampa, Dukes met with top county officials and asked interim county Administrator Ron Pianta whether he would be willing to continue filling in while the commission finds a permanent administrator.
Pianta said he would be, and Dukes said he was fine with going on with the interviews as planned next week.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he also didn't have a problem with going ahead with the interviews. That is partially because Baenziger explained to Adkins that if none of the three meets the county's needs, he will do the search again at no cost. The commission spent $21,500 for Baenziger's services.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said there was no reason to cancel the interviews.
"The times are scheduled anyway, and (Baenziger) has done a lot of hard work on this,'' he said.
The news of Herr's withdrawal disappointed Commissioner Dave Russell.
"He was my pick,'' Russell said, noting that he had heard from a number of community leaders who strongly supported Herr. "I remember my dad speaking highly of him."
Russell's father was a county commissioner during Herr's time with Hernando County.
"Tampa is getting a good department administrator,'' he said, noting that he couldn't blame Herr for making that choice, since the annual salary is $153,000.
Hernando County advertised its administrator salary at between $120,000 and $150,000, with the hope of hiring at the lower end of the range.
"It makes a statement to the people who say that we should hire an administrator on the cheap for less than $100,000,'' Russell said. "We're not going to find the type of person we need to lead this county for that.
"In this profession, you get what you pay for, and with the history here in this county, we're going to have to pay more.''
The position has had high turnover, and recent administrators have had to deal with several volatile political issues.
Russell said he agreed with Baenziger that going forward with the interviews was the right thing to do.
"We've got three viable candidates that Mr. Baenziger is confident can lead this county,'' Russell said. "I look forward to meeting and interviewing them.''
One-on-one interviews between individual commissioners and the finalists are planned for Wednesday morning. The board will conduct public interviews with each candidate in the commission chambers beginning at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
A public meet-and-greet with the finalists will be at the Hernando County Airport office at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.