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Move to make interim Hillsborough County administrator permanent faces hurdles

TAMPA — With elections over, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan is seeking to restore a sense of stability at County Center.

Hagan confirmed he will seek approval Wednesday from his fellow board members to take the interim tag off of County Administrator Mike Merrill's job title. Merrill has been serving in the tentative post since March, when commissioners suspended, then fired, Administrator Pat Bean.

"I think he has proven himself," Hagan said. "He came in during challenging economic times and managed it and instilled a level of confidence in county government."

There are some immediate challenges to what Hagan is suggesting. The Hillsborough County Charter, its constitution of sorts, spells out requirements for someone taking the county administrator job, and Merrill doesn't meet two of them.

Merrill, 57, moved to Clearwater in July, after being named the interim administrator. The charter says he must be a resident of Hillsborough County, or "shall within a reasonable time become and remain while in office a resident of the county."

Merrill said he would remedy that if board members take a vote to make him permanent.

The charter also specifies that the administrator "holds a master's degree in public administration, management, or related field and shall have three years of executive or management experience in public administration." He meets the second part, but his master's is in religious studies.

Merrill has pursued coursework toward a doctoral degree in communications but has not completed it. He also has a bachelor's degree in political science.

Merrill acknowledged religious studies likely does not qualify as a related field. He and Hagan have asked County Attorney Renee Lee to review the matter to see if there is a remedy. Merrill said he asked for the review so as not to waste the county's time if he, by definition, doesn't qualify.

"My master's degree is not even close to what those requirements imply," he said.

Merrill has spent nearly 23 years with Hillsborough County government, much of it as director of its debt management department, before he was promoted to an assistant administrator by Bean. He is widely credited as one of the managers who helped the county obtain and retain its superior credit ratings, even as the economy has depressed tax collections.

When commissioners named him acting administrator, he initially said he wasn't interested in getting the job permanently, or at least had never aspired to it. But he has worked to implement sweeping changes in county government in response to challenging economic times.

"I'd like to finish some of these initiatives we've started," he said.

Merrill currently earns just under $155,000 annually, much less than people who hold similar positions in the region, according to research by Hagan's office. Hagan says the county could also save as much as $80,000 by not hiring an executive search firm.

The challenge is that the administrator's job requirements are written into the charter and are not just a matter of policy, which board members can vote to ignore. A charter change must be approved by the public.

However, there is some precedent for the board taking less than a literal reading. A prior commission determined that former Administrator Fred Karl's law degree met the requirement after then-County Attorney Emmy Acton opined that it did.

Former Commissioner Jan Platt, who helped create the charter, said the requirement was intended to ensure whoever was hired had experience managing a professional organization and was not simply a politician. Normally a stickler for the rules, she said she thinks Merrill's experience meets the intent.

"If there were ever a time where politics needs someone with a religious studies degree, now is the time," Platt said, half joking. "There needs to be a little peace and goodwill toward men."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Move to make interim Hillsborough County administrator permanent faces hurdles 11/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 29, 2010 11:56pm]
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