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Hernando administrator escapes firing but not slings and arrows

Administrator David Hamilton, center, listens to county commissioners discuss a motion to fire him Tuesday. The motion was tabled in exchange for his promise to present a transition plan. 

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Administrator David Hamilton, center, listens to county commissioners discuss a motion to fire him Tuesday. The motion was tabled in exchange for his promise to present a transition plan. 

BROOKSVILLE — More than a year and half ago, as David Hamilton began the task of restructuring county leadership, Commissioner John Druzbick started to have doubts about him.

Over time he saw Hamilton, the county administrator, apologize for missteps and promise to change, but one blunder followed another — from issues about purchasing to concerns about the Hernando Beach Channel dredge.

"In the beginning, what he was trying to do I was very supportive of,'' Druzbick said Wednesday. "But then it became that he managed more by fear than he managed by consensus.''

When Hamilton announced last week that he had applied to be Sarasota County administrator — on the heels of concerns that he had not given the commission the full story about the recent job change for Susan Goebel — the die was cast.

On Wednesday, commissioners were talking about the unexpected end to Hamilton's 3 1/2-year tenure as administrator and what will come next as the commission seeks a replacement.

While Druzbick sought to fire Hamilton during Tuesday's commission meeting, commissioners ultimately agreed to allow the administrator to devise a transition plan for his replacement and serve until the end of December.

On Wednesday, the 62-year-old administrator voiced his usual assessment about his condition, saying it was "another day in paradise.''

He said he was meeting with the staff throughout the day and going on with the operation of the county. He said he had not yet begun to draw up the transition plan he will present the commission Nov. 8.

On Tuesday, he noted that some projects still to be completed: the dredge, a salary schedule for county employees, and a plan to provide information to the community about a new garbage collection system that starts Jan. 1.

Hamilton declined to go into detail about what happened to him Tuesday, but he did express pride in presentations made during the meeting by the three newest members of his leadership team.

"I was very proud of the team,'' he said. "This is a strong organization.''

But that opinion was not shared by all.

"We have a lack of effective management at every level in this organization, and it starts at the top,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins, a longtime critic of Hamilton. "He's intelligent, slick and conniving but not an effective manager of people. … Our next administrator must be a manager of people and a leader.''

Stabins, the lone remaining member of the board who voted to hire Hamilton in 2008, said he began questioning Hamilton's ability to perform by late 2009. He disagreed strongly with Hamilton's push to have the sheriff take over the county jail, although he admitted, "That turned out okay, I think.''

Hamilton also failed to inspire employees, said Stabins, who seconded Druzbick's initial motion to fire Hamilton on Tuesday.

"We have a dysfunctional organization that's growing more dysfunctional every day,'' he said, "and I don't see David fixing it.''

He accused Hamilton of doling out information to individual commissioners carefully, mentioning only details that would keep each on his side.

"He's always finding a third vote (on the five-member commission),'' Stabins said, noting that Tuesday was "his greatest moment'' in controlling the commission by avoiding outright termination.

Still, Stabins noted that by not firing Hamilton, the commission might be off the hook for five months of severance pay in his contract, which would run more than $75,000.

Druzbick shared Stabins' contention that Hamilton did not always give board members the information that they needed to make good decisions. The recommendation on Goebel, without sharing that administrative services director Cheryl Marsden was opposed to the move, was the best example lately, he said, and finally caused him to lose confidence in Hamilton.

Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said little at Tuesday's meeting about his concerns, other than that he favored Hamilton's suggestion for a two-month transition out of the job. But if it had come to a vote, he said Wednesday, he would have voted to terminate him.

His problem with Hamilton, he said, was that he had downgraded the qualifications for the job of environmental services director so that Goebel would fit them rather than finding a person who met the qualifications.

"You have a multimillion-dollar organization in the utilities. One should think about what's best for the organization rather than have a person fit,'' Adkins said.

Hamilton brought an alternative plan for the job change Tuesday, but once the talk of firing him came up, commissioners never returned to the discussion. That will likely happen at a future meeting, Adkins said.

He also said the commission should consider starting the process of replacing Hamilton immediately and suggested that the salary be lowered from the current $135,000.

Stabins thought that was a terrible idea.

"That's a good way to not get an effective administrator,'' he said. "That job at this time is so critical, I'd be willing to pay an even higher salary for the right person.''

Commissioner Dave Russell, who strongly advocated for Hamilton on Tuesday, said Wednesday that the transition plan was probably best for everyone because the longer Hamilton stays, the more damage it will cause him professionally, with the board so divided.

"I think the outcome of giving us all a reasonable period of time to transition is the most practical solution,'' Russell said.

With the county's history of changing administrators — the two before Hamilton lasted only 18 months each — Russell said he was not "in a big, fat, furry hurry to jump into a new contract without a lot of vetting'' of the next potential candidate. He said maybe someone from the area who already knows Hernando County should be considered.

The job, he said, is not for the faint of heart: "It's not full contact; it's full-contact blood sport.''

Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who also spoke out in Hamilton's defense, said Wednesday that he didn't have much to say about where the county needs to go from here.

"I really don't know. I have no solutions. Ask the people who fired him,'' Dukes said. "This is the side of politics I just don't like.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando administrator escapes firing but not slings and arrows 10/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 7:50pm]

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