TAMPA — Interim Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill won a measure of support from commissioners Wednesday, if not an outright full-time job offer.
Commissioners voted unanimously to give him a one-year contract but elected not to take the interim tag off his title, leaving open the possibility of conducting a national search for their top executive later.
Merrill, 57, has held the job on an interim basis since March, when former Administrator Pat Bean fell out of favor before she ultimately was shown the door. He has used that time to initiate an aggressive reorganization of county government in the face of sharply declining tax revenues.
Commissioner Ken Hagan proposed making him the full-time administrator in a show of support for Merrill's work so far, but failed to win backing from other board members.
"My feeling is that he is the right person at the right time to help get us through these challenging economic times," Hagan said.
Other commissioners were uniformly complimentary of Merrill's performance. But some, notably Kevin Beckner and newcomer Victor Crist, said a national search should precede any decisions.
Both expressed a belief that Merrill would be a strong contender for the job, but said he should be tested against others through an open search.
They shared concerns with other commissioners about the cost of a national search, which could run tens of thousands of dollars.
"But the investment will pay huge dividends," Crist said, noting that it would build public confidence that commissioners had made the right pick.
Other commissioners, notably Hagan and newcomer Sandy Murman, argued that a candidate search would just be a lengthy distraction, particularly as Merrill works on downsizing and reorganizing county government. The resulting solution -– keeping him on as interim administrator but giving him some job security — emerged as a compromise.
Merrill said he was content with the outcome of Wednesday's discussion. Chairman Al Higginbotham was asked to negotiate terms of the contract with Merrill, which could include a modest raise. He currently makes $154,835 a year.
There had been some question as to whether Merrill met the technical qualifications of the job, as spelled out in the County Charter. It requires the administrator to be a Hillsborough County resident and hold a master's degree in public administration, management or a related field.
Merrill moved to Clearwater from Hillsborough County in July. By keeping the interim title, that issue was avoided for now. He also has a master's degree in religious studies. Based on past history, County Attorney Renee Lee said she believed commissioners had some discretion in determining whether that, combined with his 23 years of mostly management experience with the county, satisfied the degree requirement.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.