BROOKSVILLE — By the time David Hamilton threw his hat into the ring for the Sarasota County administrator's job in October, he was well aware of what was coming.
He knew that his tenure as Hernando County administrator was about to be brought to an abrupt end.
"I knew that my time had come, and in these positions you have to know and understand that and be able to roll with it,'' Hamilton said.
That's one of the reasons, he said, that late on the afternoon of Oct. 21, the deadline for applications in Sarasota, he submitted his paperwork. It had sat on his desk for "quite a while," he said.
A couple of weeks later, on the same day Hamilton was fired in Hernando, the list of applicants in Sarasota County was pared. Hamilton didn't make the short list.
News of Hamilton's fall from grace here had reached 100 miles to the south.
In the first sit-down interview since his ouster, Hamilton told the Times this week about the days leading up to his dismissal and what he has learned about himself and organizational change.
He had been in the crosshairs for some time as he worked to downsize government and doused a host of fires, beginning just days after he started work in March 2008.
Hamilton, 62, had been criticized for seeming to lack compassion as he made decisions to terminate employees, many of them senior staff members, and eliminate empty positions. Others questioned decisions he made, including the controversial choice of a manager for the Hernando Beach Channel dredge. A stinging audit from the clerk of the circuit court questioned why he had skipped over key procurement safeguards in that case.
Hamilton's termination came in the middle of a storm of issues related to the continued downsizing of county government and the departure of two key members of his leadership team, environmental services director Joe Stapf and community development director Jean Rags.
The issue that became the flashpoint for Hamilton's firing was a question about why he was giving then-transportation services director Susan Goebel an $8,000 raise when she was receiving a lateral transfer to Stapf's old job.
Hamilton, who still lives in Spring Hill, said the move was part of the effort to reorganize and downsize staff in both departments.
"Salary should reflect responsibility, which meant some (staff members) received increases and others received decreases. Overall county costs would have been reduced,'' he said. "Unfortunately, the raises for a few became the sole focus of that effort rather than the net reduction in the overall cost and the projected increase in productivity, which I argue has occurred.''
In the midst of the debate, it was revealed that director of administrative services Cheryl Marsden had not signed off on the raise for Goebel because she didn't approve of it. Hamilton told commissioners Marsden's signature was missing because it was an oversight in the paperwork.
"The issue of Ms. Goebel's salary was based on a misunderstanding between county administration and the human resources department, nothing more and nothing less,'' Hamilton said. "When the recommendation came forward, we had been struggling to present several reports to the board based on the recent simultaneous resignations of two valued members of the leadership team.
"In addition, there were two broad-based divisional reorganizations that had been years in the making. Everything came together designed to lower our costs and improve our services, which the numbers indicated it would. But there was a lot going on to pull all that together.''
It was Hamilton's job to present a salary recommendation, which he based on a consultant's study presented to the commission last year. Marsden's job was to revise the environmental services director's job description, which was changed to match Goebel's qualifications.
Last year, commissioners declined to implement the salary recommendations made by the consultant, including pay raises for Goebel and Rags to bring their salaries more in line what male leadership team members were earning.
Rags filed a discrimination complaint and won.
"You'll recall, the board's reluctance to proceed with that broader recommendation had launched litigation requiring legal fees and back salary,'' Hamilton said. By raising Goebel's pay, he said, "I had hoped to avoid further action of that nature in the best interests of the board.''
Marsden's disagreement about Goebel's pay raise concerned Hamilton.
"Just because somebody doesn't agree with a recommendation doesn't mean that it isn't the right thing to do,'' he said. "It would be nice if we all agreed on everything and every issue, but that is the recipe for disaster, and it is the type of behavior I was hired to get rid of at Hernando County.''
The issue of the pay raise has not again been raised by the commissioners, and Goebel continues to work as director of environmental services at the higher salary commissioners approved.
As that controversy faded, Hamilton said, "the issue became my termination.''
By the day he was fired, Hamilton, who said he is "somebody who knows a lot about moving,'' had already packed up many of his belongings and removed them from his office in the government center.
When asked about how he reacted to all of the negative things said about him leading up to his ouster, he responded simply, "It comes with the turf.''
And the nasty comments from residents on the day of the firing?
"It comes with the turf,'' he said.
And when Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested that he be escorted out of the building after he was fired?
"It comes with the turf,'' he said.
"Where have you heard this before? I do not empower negative energy,'' he said, remembering one of his favorite quotes from author Stephen Covey. "I didn't react. I said nothing. As always, I acquiesced to the will of the majority of the county board.''
Hamilton said his experience in Hernando County has taught him a few lessons, including "that I am capable of leading needed improvements and change within a culture of inconsistencies or mayhem, if you like.''
He said he also learned "a great deal about the dynamic of organizational change and about my professional resiliency."
"In essence," he said, "I've learned there is really nothing more fraught with peril than to take the lead in the change in the order of things.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.