Tuesday, July 17, 2018
News Roundup

DeWitt: Norman-Vacha set Brooksville on a path to success

Because Jennene Norman-Vacha has taken heaps of criticism from her former bosses lately, and because complaints about the city she used to lead are pretty much eternal, let's remember Brooksville as it was before she took the job as city manager.

Let's look at what she did to make the city better.

Previous leadership was so focused on approving new developments that it was content to leave the old downtown as a ghost town. No tumbleweeds, maybe, but several firmly rooted varieties growing through cracks in sidewalks a few blocks from Main Street.

The most influential business leaders were guided by such narrow self-interest that, if they realized that what was good for Brooksville was good for their enterprises, they didn't do much to show it.

Norman-Vacha, 53, whose decadelong stint ended abruptly last week when the City Council voted not to renew her contract, realized from the start that the city needed vitality and identity.

"It has to be a place!" she said in an interview last week.

She has been great about encouraging anyone who wanted to join that effort, including several previously apathetic business owners. Not everybody's on board, but a lot more of them are than used to be.

The Good Neighbor Trail finally got started on her watch, and it will soon extend not only to the Withlacoochee State Trail — as has long been planned — but ultimately, as part of the Coast to Coast Connector, to Titusville and St. Petersburg.

In the past few years, Brooksville has added one big event — the Florida Blueberry Festival, which, for all its issues, does bring people downtown — and several smaller ones, including the Christmas on Main Street tree-lighting festival.

It has finally established a Main Street Program. And a burst of permitting activity — 55 issued for renovations or new construction in the last quarter of 2016 — shows that Norman-Vacha's community building may be bringing real economic benefits.

"I think we're seeing some of the fruits of what everybody has been working on for all these years," she said.

So, maybe it's understandable that she was shocked by the council's vote and the mostly critical evaluations that led up to it.

But there were, in fact, signs of the communication problem that was one of the main complaints.

Norman-Vacha didn't have to consult council members on her personnel decisions. But she certainly could have used more input before hiring controversial fire Chief David Freda. Her hiring of Duane Chichester for a business development position was widely perceived as creating a job for a well-connected former newspaper publisher. If it wasn't — and Norman-Vacha said she just filled a vacant position — she didn't do a great job getting the message across.

And, true, there was eventually lots of public discussion about the now-approved long-term lease of city property to the Florida Blueberry Festival Inc. But several council members were surprised when the plan appeared on a meeting agenda late last year, ready for a vote, and they shouldn't have been,

Relations between the city and Hernando County are a mess, partly because of a pointless squabble over annexation that the Hogan Law Firm, which represents the city, has helped to aggravate. It's one of several issues the firm got involved in during Norman-Vacha's tenure, turning what used to be a small, part-time legal gig into one that consistently costs the city more than $200,000 annually.

So did Norman-Vacha take too much of her counsel from too few people? I think, especially in the past few years, that she probably did and that it probably helped lead to her downfall.

But in her line of work, those are inevitable — downfalls, I mean — and by the standards of her profession she had a long run in Brooksville and a good one.

In their search for her replacement, council members can look for qualities that Norman-Vacha may have lacked. But they'll have to work hard to find someone who is as energetic as Norman-Vacha, someone who is as capable and who cares as much about making Brooksville better.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected] Follow @ddewitttimes.

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