TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners decided they want Mike Merrill as their full-time administrator after all.
Reversing a week-old vote that kept him in an interim role, commissioners said they have since realized they made a mistake by not giving him the job outright. Their vote served as an endorsement of his efforts to overhaul county government in response to the ailing economy.
The decision came during their annual retreat Thursday, and just as Commissioner Kevin Beckner was arguing the need to develop a formal process for filling future executive vacancies. That's when Commissioner Ken Hagan reiterated his belief voiced a week ago that Merrill should get the job without a search.
"I think we're in a unique position here," Hagan said. "I just strongly feel that this board made a monumental error last week by not making Mr. Merrill the permanent administrator."
Others quickly agreed and moved to give Merrill a two-year contract with a 5-2 vote. In addition to doing a good job since landing the acting then interim title starting in March, supporting commissioners cited his willingness to forgo a large pay increase and high-priced severance guarantee. They also avoid the cost of a search.
"I think it's a travesty if we don't do this," said recently elected Commissioner Sandra Murman. "We have the ability right now to set a new tone for this commission."
Beckner and newcomer Victor Crist voted against the move, repeating their stance that a national search should precede a decision. Both said they believed Merrill would be a strong candidate for the job but should be tested against other candidates.
"Is Mike a great leader? Yes, he is," said Beckner, before adding that commissioners can't know how good until they compare him to other potential applicants.
Merrill, 57, has spent nearly 23 years in county government, most of it as its debt management director before getting promoted to the equivalent of an assistant administrator two years ago. At the time, he went from overseeing a handful of county workers to supervising 800.
He takes over an organization that has seen its workforce decline by more than 1,000 workers due to falling tax revenue, but one that still has 5,500 full- and part-time employees. He makes just less than $155,000.
Merrill took over as the interim chief after commissioners suspended and then fired former administrator Pat Bean for what they characterized as a series of poor management decisions. That included secretly awarding pay raises to her six top deputies, including Merrill.
The raise for Merrill was not questioned as much as the others, given the expanded job duties he had recently been handed. Besides, Merrill had long enjoyed a reputation among commissioners as a calm and dependable adviser, one credited with helping the county secure top credit ratings.
His background may not have foretold where he sits today. He is a former seminarian and once played guitar for a polka band called the Lemon Drops. A private sector banker before joining the county, Merrill is as comfortable discussing obscure art-house movies as he is dissecting the nation's mortgage industry collapse.
He holds a master's degree in religious studies rather than public administration or a related field, a job requirement County Attorney Renee Lee said commissioners could choose to interpret loosely. He also agreed to move back to Hillsborough County from Clearwater, where he moved last summer.
Since taking over day-to-day operations at County Center, Merrill has unveiled plans for remaking local government in ways that flatten its management structure and emphasize customer service. Getting awarded the job without an asterisk should allow him to more forcefully take the steps needed to make it happen, he said.
"I think it's definitely good for the organization to have some certainty, some direction," he said. "I'm really pleased."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]