Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Jennene Norman-Vacha's tenure as Brooksville city manager is showing results

A perfect city manager would show up on time for every meeting and promptly return every phone call and would never, ever berate employees.

So, I guess Jennene Norman-Vacha has room for improvement.

On the other hand.

During her five years as manager, Brooksville has forced a bonding company to fork over money for undone work at the Southern Hills subdivision. The city has upgraded miles of crumbling old sewer pipe, won a grant to replace leaking septic tanks in south Brooksville, cut health insurance premiums for its workers, modernized ancient development rules, earned accreditation for its police department, beautified medians and installed welcome signs.

You say all this is too small-bore, too wonkish? Well, she's also helped persuade people with money and power to care about Brooksville's downtown, and for the first time in decades you don't have to be delusional to hope for its revival.

And more than that, Norman-Vacha has started to change the city's vision of its future, which used to be basically a tollgate to collect as much cash as possible from all of the development expected to come this way. She sees Brooksville as a place to do business, to eat, walk, shop and maybe get to know each other better — a real, full-functioning urban entity.

Most of the above accomplishments were included in a list provided by Norman-Vacha's steadiest supporter on City Council, Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn. Along with the rest of the council, she gave Norman-Vacha the best annual evaluation of her career on Monday night.

It wasn't unanimous. Council member Joe Bernardini brought up Norman-Vacha's deficiencies as a communicator with council members and, especially, employees. He called her "a very good doctor with a very poor bedside manner."

I've heard the same from some people in city hall — that when Norman-Vacha is unhappy, it's a good idea to keep your head down. I've also heard she's improving in this regard and, Bernardini said after the meeting, so has he. He just wants to see more improvement.

Another complaint is that she's been too connected with traditional businesses interests. For too long she ran to the city's contracted attorneys at Hogan Law Firm for advice even on routine matters. But here, too, we've seen signs — especially smaller monthly bills from the firm — that things are getting better.

And for an example of how Norman-Vacha can effectively deal with big shots, look back to the letter Realtor Robert Buckner sent the city in 2010. He pointed out that the publicly owned Quarry Golf Course had lost about $700,000 in the previous half-dozen years and all but demanded the city get out from under that burden.

Brooksville could have just abandoned the Quarry, creating a liability and an eyesore. Instead, it found a renter who has spruced up the course and believes in its future as a moneymaker.

The larger point is, with achievements and good reviews adding up, Norman-Vacha is becoming the kind of established public administrator that has been far too rare around here.

School superintendent Bryan Blavatt doesn't count because, unfortunately, he's already announced plans to leave next year. Despite their long tenures, neither do Norman-Vacha's predecessor, Dick Anderson, or former County Administrator Chuck Hetrick. Both of them survived largely by making themselves invisible.

So the county, which is once again searching for a new administrator, has never been able to find, keep and encourage independent, steady leadership. And to see its advantages, we've always had to look elsewhere — Pasco County or at the Citrus County School District. And now, maybe, Brooksville.

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