David Hamilton's description of his first year as county administrator?
First, a firefighter.
Then, a builder.
Before even interviewing for the job, Hamilton knew that Hernando County government was facing a huge challenge because of falling revenues. He knew residents were angry, as they demonstrated during 2007's crowded budget hearings.
What he didn't know before his St. Patrick's Day arrival in 2008 was that the government center was full of personnel controversies that would kindle from smoke to flames in his first few weeks.
Undaunted, Hamilton vowed to douse the flames and balance the budget while fundamentally changing the structure, the culture and the reputation of Hernando County government.
A year later, the 59-year-old administrator says he believes that because of the lessons he learned elsewhere and the support he has had from the County Commission and staff, he is well on his way to meeting those goals.
"The focus of the first half of the year was to put out the fires," he said, while "simultaneously designing and working towards rebuilding the foundation of the structure."
Recently, Hamilton's reorganizational plan and leadership team were approved. The cultural shift Hamilton envisions — to focus employees on customer service and success — is still a work in progress.
With the financial crisis deepening and the county facing an additional $10 million shortfall next year, Hamilton said there are plenty of challenges ahead for the remaining years of his five-year contract.
"It's been a fascinating year. To me the journey has just begun. On a number of fronts we've moved far more quickly than I expected," he said.
"But we have a lot of work ahead of us."
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Hamilton is sure timing played a big role in getting so much done quickly. Residents were ready for change, he said. Commissioners were ready. And the economy was in a tailspin.
"Given the precipitous decline in the economy with no end in sight, the need for radical change and significant improvement in our performance was evident to all concerned, most notably the county board and the public," Hamilton said. "It was time to stop the internal brawl and move forward as a county government."
His first task was to mete out discipline for racial discrimination in the Utilities Department, force the resignation of the human resources director for mismanagement, and fire the emergency management director for allowing his secretary and girlfriend to claim overtime she didn't work.
At the same time, Hamilton was gradually introducing his ideas to shrink government.
Along the way, there were bumps. Constitutional officers did not initially buy into the administrator's leadership team. The county attorney's office balked at moving away from reporting directly to commissioners.
Hamilton worked through the issues and is pleased with the results, saying he is significantly ahead of schedule for what he wants to accomplish.
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Hamilton's challenges also included the county's reputation for what he calls "the infinity program."
"We just never seemed to be able to get large projects moving forward," he said.
But those kinds of projects have been on the front burner for Hamilton.
Months after his arrival, at a public meeting in south Brooksville, he got blistered by residents who recounted all the ways the county had slighted the largely African-American community over the years.
Hamilton took the message to heart and pushed to accomplish road improvements, sidewalks and other needed infrastructure while moving forward with several initiatives in anticipation of cleaning up the old contaminated public works compound in the neighborhood.
He is also hoping that a new push to get permits to expand the county's landfill and to finally dredge the Hernando Beach channel will soon bear fruit.
"It's a part of an organization that is more and more predicated on winning on behalf of the citizens we serve and getting the job done," Hamilton said. "In short, our mind-set has changed."
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Of all the work Hamilton has done in his first year, the most critical accomplishment he cites is his choice to draw the public into the budget process by going out into the community, making budget presentations and implementing ideas he heard.
Not only did that give him a chance to get to know the community, it gave the same opportunity to county staffers, some of whom also hadn't been to the four corners of Hernando.
In the coming year, Hamilton is planning a similar process, this time posing to the community a question: "Where do you want us to be, and what do we have to change to get there?"
Hamilton wants to know how the remainder of undeveloped Hernando County should look in the future. And he wants to know how the county's transportation network, other infrastructure and business development activities can be aligned with those going on elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area.
The work to create that long-term vision while continuing to downsize will be tricky, especially since Hamilton's honeymoon is over.
"The first year, there's always the euphoria of somebody new. It appears to be a fairly repetitive phenomenon in the Hernando County administrator position," Hamilton said. "The aura of newness has worn off.
"Now we're into the deep cultural changes on how we do things, the way our county adopts new policies, new visions. But it's all necessary as we go to Year 3 to begin implementing the new direction as determined by the public."
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This month, Hernando County employees, by a ratio of 3-1, voted to unionize. To activist Janey Baldwin, the vote says all one needs to know about Hamilton's tenure as administrator.
"His first year should be his last year," she said. "He's the worst we've ever had."
Baldwin bases her criticisms on Hamilton's inability to turn around the sagging morale of county workers.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell did not originally support hiring Hamilton. His calm demeanor during the interview telegraphed to Russell that he might not be the dynamic leader Hernando needed.
But Russell doesn't feel that way anymore.
"Calm waters run deep. David Hamilton epitomizes that," Russell said.
"David has brought a new dynamic to operations here in Hernando County, a much-needed change. He's developed procedures and organizations that are making for better policy."
Russell dismisses criticism about Hamilton causing the morale problems. He notes that the county needed to make some tough decisions, and whoever is responsible for that "is not going to be the most popular guy."
"David came to us as an experienced, battle-hardened administrator," Russell said, praising him for his innovation. Taking on the Hernando administrator's job "is a full-contact exercise, and it always has been. … David sure seems to have risen to the task."
Like Russell, other commissioners largely stand in Hamilton's corner.
Commissioner Rose Rocco, who also was initially hesitant to hire Hamilton, noted that she was "cautiously optimistic" that all of the structural changes were going to improve Hernando County.
"He's doing a good job, and a lot of the things he's doing are very different from what we've done in the past," Rocco said. "But there's no question we have to look at things differently."
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Hamilton has been "exactly what we needed."
As promised during the interview, Stabins said, Hamilton has shown a thick skin and a willingness to take on difficult tasks.
"It's so hard to find someone like him to do this job," he said.
Hamilton studied Hernando County for several years, surmising the kinds of issues a fast-growing community would face with hopes to someday work here. That worked in the county's favor, Stabins said.
"He's not just a stable administrator and a strong leader, but he has the intellect to move us forward," he said.
Hamilton's hope is that the county can stay focused, get its business done efficiently and move into a future that residents have helped to forge.
And he sees a bigger picture, too.
"I never try to lose sight of the long-term vision of us being a part of that," he said, pointing to his "Tampa" coffee cup, symbolic of Hernando's place in the Tampa Bay area.
As for how he analyzes his role in all of that:
"What's the final product going to look like when the five years of the contract is spent?" Hamilton said. "In the five years I was gifted to contribute to Hernando County, what is the difference that we made?"
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.