Tuesday, February 20, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando County administrator finalists to meet with county leaders, public

BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners, government employees and residents will get their first good look this week at the three men who remain in the running to become Hernando's next county administrator.

The three finalists, who were handpicked by the search firm Colin Baenziger & Associates, say they know what they are walking into.

They know Hernando County consumes administrators at an alarming rate. They know the county has been reeling from five years of falling revenues and that more spending cuts will be needed. They know there are no easy answers to the question of how to lure industry, broaden the county's tax base and create much-needed jobs.

But they all say their experiences in other places have readied them for this challenge, and each is hoping to receive an offer from the County Commission.

The county leadership team is slated to meet with the finalists Tuesday afternoon, and the public and community leaders can attend a reception at 5 p.m. that day at the Hernando County Airport office, off Spring Hill Drive.

County commissioners will meet individually with each finalist on Wednesday morning, with formal public interviews before the commission starting at 2 p.m.

The commission is expected to fill the job by April 10.

The commission was to have interviewed five finalists, but two dropped out last week. A favorite among some because he had worked previously as Hernando's deputy, Robert Michael "Mike" Herr, took his name out of the running Friday after he was picked as Tampa's new administrator of public works and utility services.

John Daly III of Michigan dropped out, saying he didn't think the job would be a good fit.

The new administrator, who will be the ninth the county has employed since 1990, will replace David Hamilton, whom commissioners fired in November, saying they had lost faith in him.

Concerned about public sentiment that top county officials are paid too much, the commission set the salary range for the job from $120,000 to $150,000, with hopes of hiring at the low end of the range.

If the commission sticks with that goal, each of the finalists would be taking a pay cut from his most recent job.

Colin Baenziger, who heads the search firm, has said that if the commission is not satisfied with one of the finalists, he will conduct a new search at no additional cost.

Here is a rundown on each of the finalists, based on information they submitted to the county and interviews by the Tampa Bay Times.

Ed Green

Hernando County's reputation for being a tough place for administrators doesn't faze Ed Green.

"I've gone into some very challenging organizations before,'' said Green, a Colorado native. "I know at times this job is going to be difficult and at times frustrating.''

He said he would find great satisfaction in being able to take Hernando County to the next level.

Green was let go as manager of Garfield County, Colo., in January when the county's elected board members decided they wanted to be more involved in the day-to-day operation of the county.

When he arrived in Garfield County in 1998, he said, the community had been frozen in place for years because of economic hardship, and his push was to replenish the county's reserves, build the infrastructure the community needed and create a professional organization.

In looking at Hernando County's finances, Green said, "the general fund is still pretty strong. . . . They've controlled expenses pretty well.''

He did note that there were significant increases in the budget for the sheriff, and he said that raised some questions that should be answered.

Though counties in Colorado don't generally get into the business of economic development, Garfield County did.

"We decided we absolutely needed to,'' he said.

He worked with economic development councils and the state to develop a more regional focus for their efforts. He also worked to eliminate pages of rules in order to make the community more business-friendly.

Green also said there was a focus on completely rebuilding the airport, the feature he called "the epicenter of economic development.''

Another part of his job was an extensive strategic planning process. He also worked to gather public input on a variety of issues. He said the trick was getting a cross-section of residents — not just the regulars at public meetings — to participate in focus groups every couple of years.

"We would have a discussion of what our plans look like now and what we plan for the future,'' Green said. "We learn an awful lot from folks.''

Anger, hostility and negativity from the community toward county government and its workers drove off two of Hernando's last three administrators.

Green said his years negotiating contracts have crafted his style of dealing with negative people, which starts with simply listening to a person's story.

"I like to ask lots of questions and see if we can find common ground,'' he said. "People have a set of wants, and then there is what they really need. … It's just being genuine with folks.''

Len Sossamon

A native of North Carolina, Len Sossamon said he sees many similarities between Hernando County and the communities he has been top manager for in the past, including its proximity to major cities.

Sossamon lists numerous accomplishments in those communities, which are Newberry County, S.C., near Columbia, and Concord, N.C., near Charlotte.

They include establishing two new industrial parks totaling more than 500 acres, recruiting Caterpillar to open a 600,000-square-foot plant and renovating the historic courthouse in Newberry County.

In Concord, where he spent 18 years — 13 as manager — he oversaw the development of the Concord Regional Airport and Municipal Golf Course, privatized solid waste collection and landfill operations, and found financing to expand the city's infrastructure and help the city grow.

During his time as manager, Sossamon said, the city grew from 8 square miles and 16,000 people to 50 square miles and a population of 50,000. Sossamon said he also learned how to deal with negative people during those and other projects. He even had his safety threatened at one point.

"I always try to look at the positive,'' he said. "I don't overreact.''

He said his efforts toward economic development in his previous jobs came because "we had to have a good offense''; long-standing traditional jobs in the communities were disappearing. Textile mills, which had employed thousands in some areas, were downsizing and closing.

Pushing hard for new employers was critical, he said. "We had to do it in self-defense.''

Sossamon left his job in Newberry County in 2006 because he needed to care for his father, who was seriously ill. He said he enjoyed the community and the job, and has maintained an interest in government.

"I like it. I loved it. I'd probably still be there,'' he said.

Since 2006, he has worked in private sector development companies. Through one of those companies, he has also seen how the downturn in the economy can cripple business.

In April 2010, Cabernet Holdings, a business in which he was a principal owner, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization after a buyer for a hotel the company developed backed out of the deal. He and his partner ended up with a $1.78 million judgment against them in Davidson County Superior Court, but that debt has since been settled, he said.

His other development interests have been more successful and have involved building restaurants, drugstores and other retail establishments around the country.

James Wilson

James Wilson was born a Texan and raised in the Winter Haven and Palatka area. He currently is the finance director for the city of Altus, Okla.

Wilson said he applied for the Hernando job because he believes he knows about the pressing issues and is familiar with the area.

"I felt like I could come in and I'd have a lot to offer,'' he said.

He certainly has experience in dealing with the issues that face a government during adversity.

For nine years, Wilson served in Galveston County, Texas, in a job comparable to county manager. He told his supervisor that it was time for him to move on to the private sector and try something else, and, not long after, parts of Texas were devastated by Hurricane Ike.

Wilson changed his plans and stayed on with the county for two more years, switching to a job focused on housing and economic development, areas where he was sorely needed in the aftermath of the storm.

Among the many lessons that experience taught him, he learned the nuts and bolts of economic development from an unconventional side. Whereas other places tried to take advantage of the storm damage and lure away Galveston businesses, part of Wilson's job was to try to retain the businesses until the rebuilding process could take place.

Dealing with recurring tropical systems like Ike also taught Wilson the importance of communicating with residents, especially lower-income residents and others not involved in the politics of the community. While in Galveston County, there was a concerted effort to get information about storm preparedness into the hands of ordinary residents, and that meant neighborhood meetings and visiting with homeowners associations.

Wilson said he believes that a county administrator needs to get involved in the community in which he lives, and that would be his plan if he is chosen in Hernando County. He also said he would have an open-door policy.

Wilson said he knows how to deal with negativity.

"I tend to have an open communication approach. I take everyone's input and try to find the source of the frustration. You have to get to the bottom of it and start looking for the solution,'' he said.

He said he would hope to find some solutions for Hernando County's challenges.

"I know I can come in and provide a lot of assistance to the County Commission and keep the county moving forward,'' he said.

Tampa Bay Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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